Uber’s disruptive technology has changed the face of transportation in Africa. Pre-Uber era, Africans moved around by sharing vehicles for decades. Traditional ridesharing was more about getting from one point to another than the technology that powered it. Today, technology has turned transportation on its head. Using social networks, smartphones, and GPS navigation devices, commuting has gone from brick-and-mortar to tap or click of a button, and Uber is leading this revolution in Africa and beyond. In this exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine, Uber’s General Manager, Sub-Saharan Africa, Alon Lits, talks about the companies contributing to the changing face of transportation in Africa as well as its contribution to the continent’s socio-economic growth and development. Excerpts:
In Africa, with Johannesburg as the first city; how would you describe the experience thus far?
We launched our first city in Africa – Johannesburg – in August 2013. Africa is one of our most exciting markets. It constitutes a melting pot of rapid infrastructural development, rich cultural diversity and burgeoning entrepreneurship. As some of the fastest-growing cities in the world, African cities present very real challenges when it comes to congestion. While each country offers its own unique opportunities, we have found the African region to be defined by agility, creativity and adaptability. This has provided Uber with the perfect conditions to launch and nurture us on-demand economy in partnership with local governments and existing businesses.
While Uber’s disruptive technology is seen by some as an opportunity, others see it as a challenge to the old order the traditional taxi operators; how have you been able to manage this situation, especially in cities where Uber has met stiff opposition?
Our technology is open and non-exclusive and we are keen to offer it to a broad number of taxi drivers to boost their chances for profit. In fact, many metered taxi drivers are already using our technology to boost their incomes and we would welcome more who wish to join their colleagues. Our customers should be allowed more choice in the way they travel, and more choice that’s affordable. Our focus is on reliability, flexibility and opportunity. We believe in open and constructive dialogue with everyone in the future of urban transport. We hope tourists, business travellers and residents alike can enjoy a safe, affordable, hassle-free time travelling however they choose to get around their cities.
Tell us more about Uber’s contribution to the socio-economic growth of the 13 cities where it currently operates in Sub- Saharan Africa?
Ease of transport goes hand-in-hand with fast-moving economies. As countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is characterized by rapid urbanization, it is clear that these countries continue to be a priority for us. The United Nations Economic report on Africa for 2017 listed urbanization as a mega-trend in SSA, with profound implications for the demographic profile of the continent and its socio-economic outlook. Half of Africa’s population will be living in urban areas by 2035.
Each of those people will need jobs, access to services, and a solution to move freely and safely through the city they live in. This is where Uber will continue to play a vital role. Driver-partners across the continent are excited about what Uber has to offer. It’s not just about creating economic opportunities for individuals, it’s about helping driver-partners build their own small businesses through affordable systems that create economic opportunities, improve efficiencies and reduce emissions. Female empowerment has also been a priority for Uber and while Uber has reached its goal of empowering 1 million female driver-partners using the Uber app, the majority of these drivers are based in the US, so we are looking forward to empowering more women drivers across SSA through our ongoing studies, focus groups, referral programmes and safety round tables specifically for women.
Uber has created real opportunities for local entrepreneurs to create and enjoy the flexibility and enhanced earnings potential – for themselves and, ultimately, for individuals that many of them bring into their thriving and growing transport businesses. Uber has been delivering this same level of transformation across Africa and with over 1 305 000 active riders and 36 000 active driver-partners in Sub- Saharan Africa.
Inadequate infrastructure remains one of the major challenge facing countries in Africa, especially with the continent’s bulging population; tell us more about Uber’s business model aimed at easing city congestion?
Africa is such an exciting opportunity for us. As with telecommunications, where the leapfrog effect has seen investment in 4G rather than fixed-line networks, there is the potential for Africa to decrease traffic congestion and for people to move around the continent in a more time-efficient, productive manner while reducing carbon emissions. Uber encourages more efficient use of existing public transportation infrastructures and sees the future less about the car ownership and more about car-sharing as smart cities look for smarter solutions to increase mobility while reducing congestion which means fewer cars on the road, fewer emissions and less time wasted sitting in traffic. Car-sharing can also reduce infrastructure costs and environmental impacts.
Wherever Uber is available at scale, access to a safer, cheaper, more reliable way to get from here to there becomes a real alternative to car ownership. Apart from the benefits already seen from Uber in Africa, products like UberPOOL could help Africa move even better. UberPOOL is carpooling at the press of a button. Using technology, it is quick and easy for people heading in the same direction at the same time to share their journey. UberPOOL in Africa could allow people going in the same direction the opportunity to share the ride, as well as the cost, which can get more people into fewer cars and tackle congestion and pollution over time.
Our findings show that Uber has created over 60,000 jobs across the continent, but, criticisms persist that driver-partners are underpaid and lack job security; what plans do you have to improve on the terms of partnership?
Driver-partners are independent contractors. There is no typical driver. Drivers choose to drive with Uber for the flexibility and control they have. They choose when they drive, for how long, and can dictate their own schedule, day-to-day, week-to-week. Some drivers own their own transportation companies and they use the Uber app to connect their drivers with riders and grow their business. Some people use the app to drive towards a goal – like a vacation for their family, or a new computer. Then they won’t drive again for months until they need something else. Many works full- or part-time at other jobs. We are always working hard to connect drivers to riders and increase their chances for profits.
We’ve also put in place and continue to look at partnerships which illustrate our commitment to the driver-partners. For instance, vehicle finance is a challenge for driver-partners so we’ve partnered with companies like WesBank in SA and First Bank in Nigeria to ease the barriers of car ownership for driver-partner. In Nigeria, we’ve partnered with companies like Germaine Autos – to provide valuable car maintenance and servicing plans, ensuring that driver-partners receive additional value. We also offer an exclusive programme to driver-partners in SA and Kenya called Uber Rewards, to help drivers reduce costs and reward them for the time. Notable partner deals include Fuel rebate, cell phone deals, maintenance and affordable health care.
What are some of the long-term strategies of the company for the African market?
Uber’s ambition is to be everywhere – any progressive, forward-thinking city that has a need for safe, reliable and efficient transportation, we want to be there. We are part of a broader mobility movement, establishing smart cities of the future and we are currently exploring our options of where to go next.