“That business destroys cars. You buy a vehicle, put hundreds of kilometres on it in a short time and it falls apart before you make any real money for yourself,” says Silas Wambugu, a taxi driver who has been operating in the city for 40 years. “When you add up the cost of fuel, maintenance, airtime and the percentage Uber gets you can’t live off of rides that cost Sh.200,” he adds, “You’ll end up spending more money on driving people around than you are making.” Admitting that he too tried to go the transport app route but ultimately abandoned the endeavour.
There is a lot to be said about the Uber advent into the transport economy in Kenya. When the app first launched in the country in mid-2015 it swiftly caught fire within the local scene. Catching an Uber was trendy and by and large made the process of hailing a taxi easier. Where before it came down to creating a relationship with a particular driver and having to depend on your contacts for a ride, Uber meant that whoever was nearest and quickest—wherever you may be—would ferry you to your destination.
In an effort to keep up with competition and still breaching into the market, Uber initiated an aggressive price reduction in addition to making payments easier and initiating a multitude of promotions, that were meant to solidify their position as the number one tech-transport company in the country. In July of 2016, a drastic 35 per cent decrease in Uber rates essentially opened the floodgates to protests and controversies.
Telecom giant Safaricom dipped their toes into the ride-hailing industry with Little Cab in the same month that saw the Uber price drop. Which seemed to be an indication that the San Francisco-based company was in fact ‘shook.’ Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore did little in the way of concealing this fact, “It is effectively a rival for Uber. It is a local competitor which will be cheaper and better for the local community,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
55-year-old Wambugu reveals that he started driving even before it was legal for him to obtain a license. He arrives at his place of work at 6 am and leaves by 7 pm. The only exceptions he makes to the time limits is when he has made an appointment with a client who would require that he stay in the CBD longer than he usually does.
When probed about the amount of money he gets in a day he says, “Things have really changed these days. Before business was booming because there wasn’t as much competition, there weren’t as many drivers on the roads too.” He says the average amount he earns per day is Sh.1000 but it fluctuates. In spite of all the challenges he maintains that he would never opt to turn his business into an Uber again. “No, I’ll only be taken advantage of. Uber will become my master, I won’t determine my own earnings,” he says, “There’s no need to go into a business and try my luck when I already have something secure.” He also discloses that many Uber drivers skirt traffic laws such getting the right insurance and proper vehicle maintenance because their cars break down on the regular.
Initial protests by Uber drivers and other taxi drivers revealed of two sides of the same coin. The former were seeing the efforts of their labour bear no fruit with rides costing half the price they did before while the latter were gasping for air dealing with the competition. This situation has not changed since 2016 but taken on a stranger hue.‘Around Nairobi in One Night’—the tale of an Uber driver who was effectively held captive by a KDF soldier—might have been an engrossing read but is also a reflection of the present reality. Operators of traditional taxi cabs seem to have one major complaint—apart from Uber staking out their turf, that is—customers refusing to pay. That could be termed an occupational hazard. Driver Robert Ngugi who has been in the taxi business since 1986, chauffeuring customers in the CBD backs this claim up, “I haven’t had any major problems in that time but I also only carry specific passengers. Corporates and people who actually use taxis regularly.” Uber drivers on the other hand, due to the nature of the beast, have deeper issues.
“There’s no need to go into a business and try my luck when I already have something secure.”
One such motorist who chose to remain anonymous, spoke of a complicated tale of a passenger who attempted to rob him, “It was late at night and in the middle of the ride the customer decided to change his destination. He told me he was a doctor and had been talking on the phone to a refugee who wanted to procure an abortion for her daughter. The story didn’t make sense and the amounts of money he was also taking about on the phone call made me suspicious. “Another driver added that he had to stretch his time and resources over multiple ride-hailing apps all at once in order to make ends meet. Stating that on a good day he could earn up to Sh.2000 but it would be whittled down to due to other transport logistics.
This is where the real divide shows, Uber drivers tend to be younger and more willing to operate at odd hours while taxi cab drivers are older and on a regimen. Long hours, innumerable cab rides and the intense competition might not be something that will change soon seeing as passengers are happy with the low prices but that might just be the future rearing its ugly head.
Silas finishes by touching on a strange conspiracy theory that seems to be making rounds among taxi and Uber drivers in the city,”They think that Uber is owned by Uhuru Kenyatta’s son and I don’t like that rumour. It doesn’t make sense and it’s tarnishing his son’s name.” Asked why he says, “I don’t know why, they just do.”
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