Storm brewing as taxi firm Uber upsets industry in Kenya

An American service provider has sparked an uproar among local taxi operators in Kenya.

Uber taxis, introduced to the Kenyan market last August, use modern technology to reach their clients and offer services at lower costs than conventional taxis.

Wednesday, it emerged the conventional taxi drivers fear being driven out of business by Uber.

The operators, under the Kenya United Taxi Organisation (Kuto), said they will block all the city roads, if the Government does not solve their dispute within seven days.

“We are ready to hold talks with Uber’s management, with the Government being the lead negotiator, to end the standoff in one week. We cannot be rendered jobless as the Government does nothing,” said Mwangi Mubea, a spokesman for Kuto.

Damaged vehicles

Speaking after a meeting in Nairobi, Mr Mubea denied media reports that taxi operators earlier this week attacked Uber drivers, intimidated others and damaged their vehicles.

“We cannot attack drivers who are employed just like us. In fact they worked with us before going to Uber. We have no problem with them. Our only issue is the strategy used by their management to attract customers, which is driving us out of business,” he said.

According to Mubea, charging Sh300 for short distances is unrealistic. “Considering the traffic jams we have in Nairobi that is not feasible. We are also furious because for one’s car to be registered with Uber, one of the requirements is that your vehicle must have been manufactured after 2009. How many taxis in the city were manufactured seven years ago?” he asked.

Steven Karanja, a Kuto official, said “we know we cannot fight technology but all we want is fairness and mainstreaming in the industry”.

“There are about 200 Uber taxis in the country compared to over 15,000 conventional ones. Our business has been affected greatly. The Government must urgently come up with mechanisms to protect us. It will be dangerous if the thousands of young people in the industry lose their jobs,” said Mr Karanja.

Uber’s management said they were aware of the heat their entry into the market had generated, but were working with taxi organisations in the country to find better ways of engaging with them.

“We have been engaging with taxi associations since last year to find a way that we can partner with them. We are happy that many taxi drivers are already using our technology to boost their incomes and we would welcome more who wish to join their colleagues,” said Samantha Allenberg, Uber’s spokesperson.

She added: “We are working with all relevant stakeholders in Kenya to resolve this as a matter of urgency. We hope tourists, business travellers and residents alike can enjoy a safe, affordable, hassle-free time travelling in Nairobi.”

Last year, France’s highest court banned UberPOP, a low-cost, ride-sharing service for using unqualified drivers.

Parking ban

In November last year, Reuters reported that taxi operators sued New York City and its Taxi and Limousine Commission, saying the proliferation of the popular ride-sharing business Uber was destroying their businesses and threatening their livelihoods.

UberPOP has been outlawed in Italy, Spain and twice in Germany. In Bangkok, Uber was shut over drivers’ lack of registration and insurance documents.

Uber’s introduction in South Africa last year, according to The Africa Report, also caused a backlash after taxi operators in major cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town said it was undermining their businesses.

Meanwhile, the Kenya Taxi Cab Association has threatened to sue the Nairobi county government over the directive to ban all taxis from occupying parking slots in the central business district.

Last week, the county government cancelled all designated taxi ranks in the city centre in a move aimed at de-congestion.

KTCA Treasurer Job Nzioka said the parking slots were in line with the city by-laws, which allowed taxis to be allocated slots in designated areas. He said the association had not received an eviction letter from City Hall and they would sue if the directive was enforced.

“I can assure you we cannot be banned from parking in the CBD and if that happens then a fierce court battle is awaiting the county,” he said.

He said the county government was unfairly targeting the taxi operators, adding that the authorities ought to draft other implementable de-congestion measures.

-Story by Daniel Psirmoi, Josphat Thiongo and James Wanzala