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Behind smiling driver of app hailing cab, lies sad cash tale

Uber drivers at Uhuru Park, Nairobi, during a protest this year over a 25 per cent profit cut by the online taxi hailing app firm. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Uber drivers at Uhuru Park, Nairobi, during a protest this year over a 25 per cent profit cut by the online taxi hailing app firm. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG  

In a month, Mr John Karori must pay Sh60,000 to the owner of a vehicle he has hired to do taxi business in Nairobi using the many hailing apps in Kenya.

And since making Sh2,000 a day is proving too difficult, owing to stiff competition in the business, he’s considering quitting the trade.

US-based Uber, which he works for, charges Sh33 per kilometre or Sh2 per minute, just like other related companies. The money is apparently affordable to many ordinary people.

From the CBD to Kenyatta National Hospital, for instance, Mr Karori makes about Sh300 or less. So when Uber takes out 25 per cent, he’s left with about Sh225. He will use the same money to pay Sh300 daily parking as well as meet the cost of car wash. He also has to have adequate airtime and airtime apps to enable him to communicate with clients.

“At the end of the month, I am expected to pay Sh60,000 to the owner of the vehicle and still make my profit,” Mr Karori recounts, saying last month he could only raise Sh50,000, forcing him to borrow the balance to remain afloat.

In a normal day he manages to make profit by working for at least 18 hours.

His colleague, Mr Elijah Wanjiru, is also quitting barely a month after joining the business on realising that he cannot even feed his wife and two children from the proceeds.

After meeting all the daily expenses, he says City Council askaris sometimes take it all away, especially for offences like picking passengers at areas that are not designated as pick-up points.

And since he pays the owner of the vehicle Sh2,000 every day, he’s sometimes forced to apply for a loan to pay the money.

These are some of the problems drivers of taxi hailing apps encounter routinely. A series of meetings with Nairobi deputy governor Polycarp Igathe, convened to discuss issues affecting taxi hailing apps business, have not borne fruit yet.

This is after Uber drivers and other colleagues in digital taxi sector went on strike in September.

With such meagre earnings and long working hours, drivers of these firms have been complaining that there’s too much control of their work, like they are permanently employed.

Yet they only join digital taxi firms as independent contractors.

“We are like employees but we don’t have benefits and we cannot, therefore, be legally allowed to form a trade union,” Uber driver Edwin Waithaka points out. He says the job cannot be sustainable.

The drivers, vehicle owners and firm owners had first sought help from the Transport Ministry when the Principal Secretary was Mr Irungu Nyakera. They met him under their umbrella organisation, Digital Taxi Association (DTAK).

Apart from Uber, other taxi hailing firms affiliated to the association include Little Cab, Taxify, Mondo-Ride and Mara Moja.

They were trying to agree on the industry’s operating guidelines to see if they could make the taxi business sustainable.

Eventually, the ministry referred them to Nairobi County Government on the grounds that taxi industry is a devolved function.

What emerged from their meetings with Mr Igathe, according to the DTAK chairman David Muteru, is that with no policy guidelines for taxi hailing apps, the business cannot be regulated.

The Nairobi County Government also said it cannot interfere with the business since the drivers, vehicle owners and hailing app firms — all operate as private entities.

Mr Muteru, who operates his own vehicle at Uber Technologies, is also considering quitting the business.

“These app firms are sustained by new entrants. They operate like a pyramid scheme,” he says, and further notes that the business is too difficult to sustain in the face of stiff competition.

During their meeting with Mr Igathe, it was agreed that digital taxi operators form their own committee that will bring self-regulation to the industry.

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