Going Nowhere Fast: The Rideshare Industry in Africa

No, I’m not riding on the back of an okata or boda boda. And you’d have to force me to get into a matatu or danfo. No offense to the hustlers that run these motorcycles and mini-buses, which are usually the only public transportation options in most African countries. Their reputation for reckless driving and accidents scares me to death.

That’s why rideshare apps have been my lifeline over the past three months. Uber and Taxify cost significantly more, so I’m part of a select group that fortunately earns enough income to afford this as an option. I also felt that this was the only way I can get around a new setting like Nairobi and do it with peace of mind. I was wrong.

Since I moved to the city, I’ve had more near-death and fearing-for-my-life experiences than I would hope for, despite the elaborate security features apps like Uber promote. It’s great that I’m able to share my ride and have my friends track where I am along my trip. But what good is that if my driver almost kills me speeding down a road, or taking a short cut through oncoming traffic on the highway (both situations literally happened). As much as we think we can automate and digitize solutions to Africa’s (transportation) problems, technology is slower or not as great with changing behaviors to promote safer practices.

Most of the conversations on providing more travel options for Africans focus on how to get people where they’re going, fast. But I’d much rather get there alive than not at all.

Unfortunately, it’s not just about how Africans ignore the rule of law on the road. It’s also about being a woman traveling in cars with strangers. Sexual harassment and violent attacks are a reality globally. Just last year Uber lost its license to operate in London due to thousands of drivers pretending to be registered drivers, and more than 3,000 cases of abuse against riders were reported in 2018.

It truly hurts me to say that, if Uber can’t meet the strict safety protocols in cities like London, how am I to feel better using it in most places in Africa?

There are new companies, like SafeBoda, that invest in actually training their drivers in road safety and making it a requirement in order to join their platform. I also met the founder of a South African startup Lula, which I think is doing the best out of all startups in the market by onboarding a fleet of drivers as staff, meaning they go through extensive background training and are under the direct supervision of operators. While both deserve applause for putting more effort into quality control, I wonder whether one does a better job of attracting investor attention based on how much the founders look like they came from Silicon Valley.

It’s this belief that outsiders know better or that Western ideas are better that makes it challenging for us to do better in Africa. Uber’s CEO has admitted the need to exercise discipline in this trend of aiming to grow fast globally by taking more than you give back in quality. With the African rideshare industry, I worry Uber (like most other foreign companies) isn’t taking its own advice. It seems all these companies are willing to do is give a slap on the wrist when a customer pleads for them to do something more to take dangerous drivers off their platform. In my personal experiences sending complaints, it scares me that they only went as far as a refund for my trip and a “This is certainly concerning” note to make up for me almost losing my life.

If you’re an African entrepreneur trying to set yourself apart in the industry, it’s going to take that further level of accountability and investment in re-training Africans’ behaviors and mindsets, and it should be the kind of criteria investors (foreign or local) care more about.

I see more money pouring into the hands of so-called elite startup brands that rather go and grow fast at the risk of taking Africa nowhere, offering no incentive to develop the culture of professionalism and consideration for consumer well-being that removes the stigma of risk and stifles the sustainable development goals we claim we want to achieve on the continent.

Let me know what you think…

I’m thinking of starting a business of my own that solves this problem.

I feel the same way — tired of lower standards that put Africans safety at risk.

I don’t think you’re seeing the full picture, and I have a different point of view…