NAIROBI, KENYA: A short conversation happens inside the vehicle, and then the passenger hurriedly steps out, turns to say thank you and walks off.
Inside the car, the driver resets his smartphone. It’s a Sunday afternoon and Paul Muiruri has just finished his seventh trip of the day. And with this, he has set a new record: 10,373 trips. It’s the highest number of trips logged through the taxi-hailing app, Uber, for a Kenyan driver.
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Paul has been with Uber since the firm launched in Nairobi in January 2015. On average, he says, he logs 10 trips a day. His busiest times, however, are Fridays and Saturdays, days when people prefer to pay for a more comfortable ride to entertainment joints.
“On weekends, every one of us in the business gets a slice of the cake because there are many people to ferry around,” Paul says, adding that he can make up to Sh9,000 on a busy weekend day before deductions.
He first stepped into Uber’s offices on January 22, 2015 after hearing about the app from a friend who’d read about it before it entered the Kenyan market. They weren’t quite clear on how it worked, but figured they didn’t have much to lose if they tried it out.
By this time, Paul had been in the taxi business for nine years, yet was in debt and had fallen out with a former employer. If the app worked out as well as it promised to, then Uber would be offering him a chance to reset his life.
“I wasn’t making any financial breakthrough at that time. Over nine years, I’d tried out every trick in the book, but I still wasn’t making that much money from running a taxi at the end of the day,” says Paul.
During a lull in business, he decided to drive to Uber’s offices, which were then along Ngong Road, and got more information. He then spoke to some of his friends who were equally distressed in the taxi business.
Altogether, Paul got a group of 15 drivers to sign up for a two-day training at the Uber offices, but it wasn’t a popular move with the peers he’d left behind.
“Other taxi drivers who learnt of Uber said we were fools to be lured by foreigners who had come to steal from us,” Paul says.
Why would they want to spend their day ferrying people to various destinations in their cars, and then share this hard-earned money with someone who’d spent the day in an office?
But Paul admits the traditional taxi system wasn’t doing them any favours. First, drivers would wait for hours at a time to get a customer, and if you were waiting in a place other drivers consider their ‘base’, you were prone to draw negative attention.
With the app, however, a driver could be sent to another driver’s base to pick up a customer, and because the client was already waiting, any rivals wouldn’t have time to get hostile.
Hitting the road
By the time Uber’s training started, several vehicle owners who’d heard of the app were waiting outside its offices to lease their cars to the drivers who were done with the two-day class.
Paul says he grasped the concepts of the app quickly, and was eager to test the market.
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“I’d spent many years in the taxi business and was familiar with many routes in Nairobi, so it didn’t take much time to align my knowledge to the requirements of the mobile app,” he says.
And he started on a high. Paul remembers making Sh10,000 the first day he used the app. At that time, Uber charged Sh60 per kilometre (it now charges Sh27).
At the end of two weeks, he had banked Sh26,000 from his trips.
What worked in his favour, Paul says, is that in the years he’d been in the business, he’d developed strong relationships with other taxi drivers, so no one bothered him when he accepted trip requests from customers in other drivers’ bases.
“This gave me an edge over novices in the business who ended up being roughed up by older drivers who were resistant to the app.”
The fact that Uber was speedily gaining popularity among Kenyans rubbed some taxi drivers the wrong way. They were losing their customers to newbies. Further, the app distorted pricing as routes that used to cost Sh500 were now Sh300.
This caused bad blood between the two taxi business models, and resulted in one of the worst fallouts witnessed in the countries Uber has launched.
Paul says some of his closest friends ended up being victims of the chaos that sometimes turned bloody. Attackers would pretend to be customers and request a ride. Once the driver arrived, they’d launch a violent confrontation.
“There were days that only 20 of us operated in town. Requests were overwhelming as the number of customers grew. We used to make so much money,” Paul says. Eventually, the push-back ended as more drivers and customers signed on to the platform. By the end of 2015, many more traditional taxi drivers sold their cars to buy the newer models required of Uber drivers.
“Of course as the number of drivers rose, the competition for customers increased,” says Paul.
And then in 2016, Little, a taxi-hailing app backed by Safaricom and Craft Silicon, launched. To shake up the market, it offered customers lower rates at Sh55 per kilometre, swaying users.
Uber eventually responded with its own price reduction, charging a kilometre at Sh45, down from Sh60.
This price war meant driver earnings would take a hit, and it got even more complicated over the next two years, as more taxi apps were launched offering lower and lower rates.
The competition remains intense, with tens of thousands of drivers signed up to the available platforms. So to make taxi-hailing profitable, Paul says, most car owners who have leased out their cars to drivers demand Sh2,000 a day, regardless of whether or not a driver receives trip requests.
And to woo drivers and gain market share, newer apps have reduced the commissions they deduct from drivers, going as low as 15 per cent. However, Uber has remained at 25 per cent.
“Many Uber drivers now operate more than one app to increase their earnings, but I prefer Uber,” Paul says, adding he’s comfortable with the app as he’s been on it since the beginning.
But for all the benefits he sees with the company, he admits the taxi business is still not all rosy.
“There are certain places in this city that I still can’t drive to up to now. Aside from being other drivers’ bases, there are also issues around insecurity.”
Drunk customers also pose a headache as they may vomit in the car or use insulting language.
There are also those who request for a ride and when they get to their destination, quickly make an escape to avoid paying.
To deal with issues around insecurity, Uber has set up an emergency security line for drivers in danger, as well as facial identification to help customers recognise real drivers from fraudsters.
Paul says he’s overcome the challenges thrown his way the past three years by having a passion for driving and enjoying the freedom of his job.
“Here, you’re your own boss. You can decide to sleep in all day or cancel all the requests, especially if the car is yours. But if it’s not, there’s that Sh2,000 you must give the car owner at the end of the day.”