Economy

Nairobi taxi drivers launch own battle against Uber

Uber does not employ drivers or own vehicles but uses non-professionally licensed contractors with own cars to offer the service. PHOTO | FILE
Uber does not employ drivers or own vehicles but uses non-professionally licensed contractors with own cars to offer the service. PHOTO | FILE 

Kenyan taxi drivers have launched their own version of the ongoing global revolt against taxi hailing service Uber, arguing that its pricing model is driving them out of business.

The taxi drivers last Thursday warned of an impending attack on Uber partners, prompting the US tech firm that owns the service to alert its Kenyan associates to move with care.

“We have received reports of isolated intimidation and harassment of our partner-drivers at the Oval — a commercial building complex — in Nairobi’s Westlands,” Uber said in a message sent to partner-drivers.

“Please be alert and aware in this area by concealing your Uber device and ensuring that your pick-ups and drop-offs take place in public, well lit areas,” read the text from Uber.

"We are working with the relevant stakeholders in Nairobi to ensure the negative experience is not repeated," said Samantha Allenberg, the spokesperson for Uber Africa.

Kenyan taxi operators are opposed to Uber’s pricing model, which cuts by more than half what they have been charging commuters in central Nairobi.

“Uber fares are as low as Sh300 to Westlands. We do not understand that pricing model and cannot charge that low because we also pay taxes,” the Kenya Taxi Cab Association (KTCA) treasurer, Richard Muiga, said.

Mainstream taxi operators charge an average of Sh600 to Westlands from Nairobi’s Central Business District.

Uber has gained quick traction in Nairobi since it entered the local scene last year — doubling the number of drivers on its App and tripling the number of trips taken.

Uber entered the Kenyan market early last year, offering a crucial alternative for Nairobi residents with its low prices, and upsetting a market that has been under the grips of private taxi operators such as Jatco and Kenatco. Ms Allenberg, however, sought to play down the simmering conflict, saying Uber had opened talks with metered taxi associations for possible partnerships.
Uber’s pricing is hinged on a metering gauge that charges users for every kilometre covered - meaning every trip is openly priced, removing the need for negotiating each trip.
Riders in Nairobi pay Sh60 per a kilometre covered and Sh4 per minute in addition to a base fare of Sh100.

Uber has faced stiff opposition to its service across the globe, including South Africa where the traditional metered taxi drivers violently demonstrated against the US operator, pulling passengers out of the vehicles and threatening the drivers.

The protesters also claimed Uber had become a threat to their livelihood and that Uber cabs were getting preferential treatment from licensing authorities.
Uber has been fighting for its life in a number of countries, including India where the service was stopped after a girl was allegedly raped by an Uber driver in early December 2014.

New Delhi Transport Department banned the taxi hailing service after medical examination of the girl revealed signs of sexual assault and rape.

Last year, the highest court in France banned UberPOP — a low-cost ride sharing service which used drivers with no professional licence to pick up paying passengers.

Prior to the ruling Uber had met open hostility from Paris taxi drivers who argued that they were being charged exorbitant licence fees that gave Uber an unfair advantage.

The UberPOP has also been outlawed in Italy, Spain and twice in Germany. 

In Madrid, a commercial court judge sided with a taxi association, blocking Uber from operating in Spain until a lawsuit contesting its right to operate was heard and determined.

In Bangkok, the Thai transport authorities ordered Uber to shut down after finding that its drivers lacked the registration and insurance needed to operate commercial vehicles.

Uber in December relaunched its service in the Spanish market, this time working only with drivers who carry a valid professional VTC licence, as required by law.

Taxi owners and lenders in New York sued the city and its Taxi and Limousine Commission, arguing that the growth of the popular ride-sharing business was destroying their livelihoods.

AFP dubbed the widespread protests ‘Uber revolution’ as the company’s executives faced trial in Paris, its offices got raided in Amsterdam, and rape allegations mounted in Delhi. 

It considers itself a player in the “sharing economy” that allows drivers to operate own businesses. Taxi operators say it represents unfair competition because the model enables Uber drivers to flout the rules and restrictions that regulate the industry.

During its launch in Nairobi, Uber positioned itself as a technology firm that did not need to apply for local taxi or transportation licences to operate in Kenya.

"To operate on the Uber platform, all driver-partners must be fully licensed to drive a Public Service Vehicle (PSV). This includes a PSV driver’s license for themselves and PSV Insurance for their vehicle.

"Driver-partners then undergo a background screening process where fingerprints are matched against existing criminal records.

"To make up for any gaps in local records, information is cross checked by one of the leading security companies in Nairobi. Reference checks are then done with upcountry chiefs, village elders, former employers, neighbours and social acquaintances," said Uber.

Uber has since pledged to economically empower one million women as drivers by 2020, introducing a new dynamic in the equation. Uber in the past couple of years sparked a revolution of its own, causing 22 state governments in the US to pass new laws regulating ridesharing.

Progressive legislation is under way in the Netherlands, Brussels (Belgium) and Helsinki (Finland).

In Africa, Uber has been operating in South African cities of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria, Lagos in Nigeria, Cairo in Egypt and Casablanca in Morocco. The Uber network spans over 300 cities in over 60 countries and six continents.

Uber is considered the most disruptive force in taxi business across the world but has more recently faced competition from other players like Easy Taxi, which started operations in late 2014 in Kenya.

Anjanja@ke.nationmedia.com; dwainainah@ke.nationmedia.com