Africa Transportation

Uber in Africa: Great for Tourists, Controversial for Drivers

kenya flag mapDuring my recent trip to Kenya I discovered, from some very large billboards, that Uber offers service in Nairobi, one of ten sub-Saharan markets they’ve entered in the past few years. Nairobi’s public transit consists of some very aggressive Matatu (bus) drivers in super congested traffic. While I’m always game to try local public transit, where I was staying it just wasn’t efficient to get anywhere by bus so I needed to use taxis of some sort. For me the Uber system was a great asset to my trip.

I found Uber to be overall safer than regular taxis due to the tracking of drivers, and cheaper than taxis as well. I’m not sure if Uber screens drivers for quality of vehicle, but the rides I took involved cars that were nicer than the average taxis. One driver told me he shares his car with another person, and so, like with some leased taxis in the U.S., they drive the car basically 24 hours a day, each one taking a 12 hour shift.

I was surprised how cheap Uber was, though billboards suggested that pricing was discounted by 35% (presumably over pre-discount prices which I never saw). For a relatively short distance of 12km, with traffic it took 48 minutes to get to my destination. And this cost me all of $6.70. I couldn’t really see how the drivers are making money with their share of that when you discount gas and the cost of operating a vehicle. So I started researching and quickly found an article about how Uber drivers in Nairobi were protesting their low pay just the month before I arrived, triggered by the 35% discount on their earnings. After Uber takes their 25% cut, these drivers are earning about $5 per hour (if my ride was typical), and they still have to pay for gas and vehicle operation costs. In spite of this low pay, apparently there are now more drivers than needed on the platform and so Uber has stopped taking applications for new drivers in this country with over 17% unemployment among its youth.

One Uber driver I met says he is making more money now with Uber than he did in his previous job as a taxi driver. He criticized the taxi network for acting like a cartel and limiting his earning. He bought a car when he started driving for Uber a year ago and claims to be earning enough to cover his expenses and even save enough to upgrade to a new car in a few years. From his perspective the 35% price drop was a good thing because now he gets 3x the ride requests that he had before, so his earnings have gone up rather than down. He believes this lower price point has brought a lot of new Kenyan users to the platform who previously could not afford Uber.

Last year I wrote about how useful Uber was during my trip to Colombia. Peer-to-peer taxis provide security and often better pricing than regular taxis for travelers who are likely targets of scams and robberies. But it’s not all roses with companies like Uber. Peer-to-peer taxi services are companies like any other, working to maximize profits. It’s very useful for travelers, but not always great for the locals trying to earn a living driving for the platform.