Geographies in Depth

Kenya’s ride-hail market is giving globalization an African twist. And it’s paying off

Residents sit outside a Safaricom retail stall in Nairobi's Kibera slum

Globalization, the African way Image: REUTERS/Natasha Elkington

Jake Bright
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As more global tech firms enter frontier markets, could greater local competition offset the disruptive downsides? What happens in Kenya’s digital ride hail market could serve as an indicator. As I reported in TechCrunch, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecommunications company, entered the space in 2016 with its Little transit app, a homegrown competitor to Uber. The move set off an ongoing price and service battle across Kenya’s burgeoning tech taxi market.

Uber has been expanding in Africa since 2012, and launched in Kenya in 2015 – bringing with it a mix of digital disruption pros and cons. On the upside, Uber has generally been well received in the East African nation, offering a modern transportation option to one of the continent’s more tech-savvy populations (see Silicon Savannah).

Kenyans have taken over 1 million trips with Uber since its arrival. The app gets 100,000 hits a month in Nairobi, and Uber has created over 1,000 economic opportunities for drivers and partners in Kenya, according to Uber Africa spokesperson Samantha Allenberg.

In Kenya and other African countries, Uber is also testing unique service options not available to passengers in many of its global markets. These include cash payments, new safety measures, and mobile image direction apps. In 2016 Uber teamed up with Kenya’s Sidian Bank in a partnership to bridge personal finance gaps, using driver performance markers to create credit profiles towards loans.

Of course, not everyone in Kenya has welcomed the San Francisco-based tech company. As in many other cities globally, some local drivers and cab services have pushed back on Uber for creating “unfair competition” on local wages and jobs. Anti-Uber protests (and even violence) have erupted. Earlier this year, the United Kenya Taxi Organisation issued an ultimatum to the Kenyan government to ban Uber from the country.

Enter Kenya’s Safaricom in July 2016. Widely recognized for the success of its M-Pesa mobile money product, the company partnered with local software provider Craft Silicon to launch the Little ride hail app. Safaricom positioned the new service to aggressively take on Uber. It immediately offered cheaper pricing (55 Kenyan Schillings per kilometer to Uber’s 60) and expanded services, such as free in-car Wi-Fi and a “female friendly” Lady Bug option, where women can request female drivers.

Safaricom also zeroed in on driver wages, perhaps the most sensitive aspect of Kenya’s online taxi market. It announced Little would “take no more than 15% of drivers’ earnings, compared to…Uber’s 25%,” in the app’s launch release.

Little’s entry has spurred a tit for tat competition in Kenya’s ride hail market on price and product offerings between Uber and the country’s other viable digital-booking services. The first move was Uber’s 35% price reduction, announced shortly after Little’s launch.

The rivalry continues to reduce costs and expand service options, according to Bitange Ndemo, a professor at Nairobi University and a Kenyan ICT leader. “There is a lot happening in the competition between Uber and Little. Uber started an aggressive marketing campaign. Large billboards dot the city. The market is stabilizing and prices for both have significantly dropped,” he said. “We also expect new innovations. They are both looking at how to get into the matatu [minibus] market. Little services can now be accessed through USSD,” Ndemo explained, referring to the app’s expanded compatibility from iOS, Android and Windows devices to non-smartphones.

The Little-Uber rivalry has also given drivers more leverage. The presence of two competing (and well-capitalized) digital ride hail operations has contributed to greater labour market mobility for them – a kind of vote with your feet (or wheels) option for those dissatisfied enough to switch to another employer. In August, drivers even formed an IT era union, The Kenyan Digital Taxi Association, to lobby executives at both Uber and Little on pay and employment matters.

A lot remains to be seen in Kenya’s digital transit market. It will be interesting to follow whether local competition will – as the Forum’s new San Francisco office director Murat Sonmez recently put it – “maximize the benefit…and minimize the downside” of innovation coming from global technology companies.

For the time being, the biggest winner in Kenya’s ride-booking rivalry appears to be the country’s citizens. The competition for passengers between the world’s highest valued start-up and Kenya’s largest telecommunications company is delivering local consumers cheaper and more reliable transport options, along with all kinds of new promos and IT product offerings. When it comes to digital transit in Kenya, globalization with a local twist could add up to a net positive for the people.

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Geographies in DepthFourth Industrial Revolution
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