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Everyone’s private driver: Uber discusses its business in Africa

In just four years Uber, the smartphone app that connects passengers with taxi drivers, has launched in over 45 countries and 200 cities globally. Last year the company entered Africa and now operates in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Nigeria’s economic hub, Lagos. uber250

Alastair Curtis is ‘international launcher’ at Uber. He spoke to Dinfin Mulupi about how the app is performing in Africa.

Uber operates in over 200 cities in the world. Describe the reasons for the success of the company in scaling and getting acceptance in diverse markets.

The positive response has been mainly attributed to the fact that we are offering an unprecedented level of safety and convenience when it comes to transportation.

Everyone needs to get around their city and we are adding to that transportation ecosystem; giving riders more choice and drivers more economic opportunity.

As a technology company, our strength is that we can move and adapt quickly, based on what works best per city. Our safety features are the gold standard. Upon requesting a car, you see the driver’s photo, name and car licence plate. You are also able to share the route with your friends and family so they know exactly when you are arriving.

What has been the market reaction in the African cities you operate in?

Passengers are constantly amazed that they can get such a stylish ride at their doorstep in a matter of minutes, simply with the tap of a button. Our partner operators love working with us too because it helps build their business, making drivers both more efficient and reliable.

I was involved in the launch in Nigeria and the response has been overwhelming. We are seeing both passengers and drivers in Lagos enjoying the choice we offer them. Lagosians in particular love products that are cool, exclusive and offer a new experience, and Uber is doing that. They are excited the company has chosen to treat Nigeria seriously, offering the same service as in New York or London.

Ultimately what impact does Uber hope to have in African cities?

It’s too soon to tell, but if the great response is anything to go by we think we will bring more income and flexibility to a lot of jobs. Don’t forget, we don’t employ drivers – they are already working as such – we just help make their job more efficient and create the right opportunities for more passengers to use Uber.

We are always exploring ways we can provide more passengers with more choice, and hope to make cities more accessible by making transportation safer and more convenient at different price points.

In Africa, Uber operates in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Lagos. How do you pick the cities you launch in?

It made sense to be in these cities because of their population and size. All are progressive and tech savvy. Our goal is to offer the Uber platform everywhere, and when we launch we first look for a number of factors. They will be smartphone penetration and network quality, supply of vehicles that will fit the Uber brand and the real opportunity to give passengers and drivers more choice.

Tell us about the challenges you have faced in Africa.

They are really no different from elsewhere, such as getting people comfortable with credit card payments or local knowledge of Google Maps. However, we find all it takes is a little getting used to for any passenger or driver to get over their hesitation.

Internationally there have been protests by taxi drivers against Uber. Do you expect to see the same in Africa?

We are changing the way people think about getting around, and we expect resistance from transport structures that have been in place for years. Our priority in Africa is to bring more choice to passengers, and great business to our partner drivers who use our platform to make their time more efficient. We are bringing value to their transportation ecosystem by offering a product that is unprecedented in safety and convenience. So far we have not seen major setbacks across Africa.

Safety and reliability is often a concern for taxi passengers. How do you address these issues?

We offer unprecedented safety and reliability features built in to our apps. Our partner drivers are all licensed transportation providers. Each is personally screened and trained by our team. In addition to this, when you order an Uber you get sent – via the app – a picture of the driver and his registration details. When you are in the car you can send – via text message – a link to an online map where a friend or family member can track your entire journey via GPS. A driver is rated by the passenger after every trip. So we constantly monitor and improve our service.

Lastly, lessons learned from launching in Africa, particularly Nigeria?

There are definitely things to bear in mind before venturing into the motherland. First and foremost, when it comes to doing business there is no such thing as “Africa”. It is a huge continent with an incredibly rich range of cultures, economies and geographies. Each has a different government, work ethic and levels of customer service. Thus before Uber ventures into a new city, we get to know as much as possible about the specific country/city before we set foot in it. Each is different and unique, and requires a tailor-made, independent approach.

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  • James Mwai

    This is a prime example of Africa being able to leap frog to the technology frontier. Uber creates and captures value by disruption of an incumbent taxi business model. Although from London to Bonn there seem to be hurdles in its path “Africa” with its growing smartphone penetration and internet savvy population offers a greenfield for Uber expansion. Contextually Uber needs to adopt existing mobile payment methods eg MPESA where credit cards are not as common.

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