One thing about Wangui Mbugua is how observant she is. She quickly notices things about her surroundings and people and finds a way to easily connect with them.
She is also a stickler for time. A rare quality on this side of the world but extremely crucial for the delivery business she manages.
As we sit down for a chat, her eyes notice the many wristbands on my hand. She prods if there is a deep story behind it and I say it is just that my hand feels weirdly empty without them.
“It is the same and that's why I wear a watch. And at least like a bracelet. One thing my brothers tell me is that I am ‘mama goro’ (mama gold) or ‘aunty goro’ because I like the jewellery,” she chuckles.
She also does not hold back a good laugh whenever the moment suits her.
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Ms Mbugua was appointed the new general manager of Uber Eats early in the year. She is now in charge of the four-year-old business which has been recording year-on-year growth of 5.2 per cent.
She is not new to Uber though as she has been part of the team for about three years as strategy and planning lead for Uber Eats sub-Saharan Africa.
Uber Eats, part of the larger Uber technology company known for its taxi-hailing business, is a delivery aggregator whose business brings together merchants (these could be stores, restaurants and such), courier partners and the customer.
This enables customers to buy and have their products delivered to their doorstep.
Ms Mbugua is a believer in the Kenyan market. She says she would not describe it as difficult. “I would not use the word difficult. I would say to unlock the Kenyan market, you need to provide stellar service and that people believe in the value proposition that you brought to them. I think with that, you can sort of navigate the market,” she says.
So, what does this mean for Uber Eats? “I think for Uber Eats, we have to be amazing in each part of the ecosystem. This means delivery is seamless, reliable and consistent,” she says.
She states that this also means that the delivery partners or merchants get to grow their businesses as well by optimising the technology Uber provides.
It is why the business keeps on innovating.
While Uber Eats is known mainly for food delivery, the business also delivers other items necessary for day-to-day life like groceries and water.
This part of the business (delivering non-food items) was birthed around the pandemic, Mbugua says.
“During the pandemic, just seeing that there were so many ecosystems that needed to be unlocked for our customers, we diversified to bringing on board grocery stores, convenience stores, people who sell water, gas and such,” she says.
It was a trend they noticed during the pandemic that people were not only ordering food but also things that are part of their day-to-day life.
“We had to quickly change our strategy so that people do not just come to Uber Eats for food but also get whatever else they might need,” she says.
Was this the same period Uber Eats roped in dark kitchens? I prod.
“Yes and no,” says Mbugua. The dark kitchens, she says are global phenomenon as people want to have these types of restaurants that are not serving front customers but delivering to them taking advantage of players like Uber Eats.
“And that was happening before the pandemic,” she says. “You might think it is pandemic related but it accelerated over the last two years because a lot of entrepreneurs have seen the advantage of working with businesses like ours to facilitate their growth.”
Some of these dark kitchens she says are owned by restaurants who want to try new cuisines while others are individuals who have never been restaurant owners before.
Her business is keen on partnerships. She acknowledges that the expansion of the business is parallel to how fast these restaurants and stores expand.
“We want to grow with our partners,” says Mbugua. Expansion, she says, is dependent on other parts of the ecosystem which include the availability of bicycles and motorbike riders and consumer dynamics in those neighbourhoods.
Uber Eats expanded to Mombasa and Nakuru at the height of the pandemic. She says business in those two cities is ‘small but growing.’
“Nairobi caught on a lot faster. People were already using a lot of informal delivery,” she says. “In Mombasa and Nakuru we see more activity during the weekend and a little bit of a slow down during the weekday. We are onboarding delivery partners to ensure the business is growing,” she says.
She observes that the plan is to increase the daily use of the service in those new towns.
While her field has a lot of competition, the majority price their services lower. Mbugua views competition as healthy for business.
“We know they are there; they are good alternatives which the customer pool can choose between us and them. It builds a healthy marketplace,” she says adding that Uber’s technology and the experience that one can consistently get their order within 40 minutes makes part of their selling point.