Grace Mutuota never imagined herself making money from her vehicle as a taxi driver. The social worker lost her job in 2016 while working for a non-governmental organization in Nairobi.

“I was at a point where I could not start looking for jobs. I felt like I needed something else,” says the 49-year-old mother of three.

Her former colleagues, who shared morning commutes to work together, motivated her to sign up for Uber, which was attracting thousands of drivers in Kenya and beyond at the time. Mutuota went ahead and joined Uber to take advantage of the flexible working hours.

Like in many other countries and cities, before the launch of ride-hailing apps, the taxi business in Kenya used to be considered “a man’s job” and unsafe for female drivers.

Since 2014, Nairobi has experienced a surge in taxi apps, both local and international, including Uber, Taxify, Little Cab and Mondo. They have quickly become one of the important ways for residents to cope with the city’s poorly managed public transport system. The expansion of the city’s middle class population, armed with smartphones and affordable internet, has been a boon for these apps.

Image: Atlas Charts

But even these apps didn’t make it completely safe for female drivers or female passengers, even in a slightly less male-centric business. While access to the driver’s seat improved with most apps, the perception of safety did not necessarily change very much. For one thing, in the early years there were numerous attacks on ride-sharing drivers in Nairobi, particularly by drivers from the traditional taxi industry, angry at the shrinking of their business. There have also been reports of female passengers being attacked by drivers.

All these factors encouraged Mehnaz Sarwar, 33, to launch An-Nisa Taxi, an e-taxi app launched last September exclusively for women and children passengers in Nairobi. Sarwar, a Muslim woman who wears a full length niqab when in public, had previously run a family restaurant business. Her concerns about riding with a male driver pushed her to look into developing a female-focused app. With $10,000 from her previous business and other funds from family she started work on what became An-Nisa, which means “women” in Arabic.

“My experiences motivated me to start this app. I always feared, as a Muslim woman, and I wanted to be driven by a fellow woman which was rare to find,” says Sarwar, founder of An-Nisa, which launched in September 2018. Many women, Sarwar says, feel much safer and comfortable when driven by a fellow lady.

Unlike others in the market, which take up to 25% of the driver’s earning, An-Nisa charges 10% of what the drivers earn from trips “as a way of empowering women who mostly go through unique challenges and need financial freedom,” Sarwar adds.

The low deduction makes Mutuota, who recently registered as a driver for An-Nisa, means she will earn about $300 after deducting all her expenses. Within the first week of service, she managed to register 100 women drivers and there were a thousand downloads of the app. There are now 300 female drivers on her roster.

But An-nisa doesn’t have the female-focused market to itself, as a gesture of attracting female drivers, Taxify introduced vehicle financing for drivers who cannot purchase upfront; giving priority access to women.

“One in every 50 drivers is a woman. A lot of women on the Taxify platform are sole breadwinners in their households, They go out of their way working for longer hours to maximize their income,” said Shivachi Muleji, Taxify East Africa general manager.

Mondo, which launched in 2016 registered 200 women drivers. Little Cab, owned by Kenya’s largest mobile network, Safaricom, has registered 500 female drivers up from just 27 when they launched in 2016. Little Cab has an option for a passenger to choose either a male or a female driver.

Maureen Chege, Little Cab’s head of sales and marketing says that they are attracting more women by “enabling a safety feature for women drivers in case they find themselves in danger while dropping off riders.”

While these numbers look high, many drivers like Mutuota are registered to two or more taxi apps. “This enables me to have riders all the time,” she says. There is no official data on the total numbers of women registered to all the taxi apps in Kenya.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), only a third of the 2.5 million people employed in the formal sector are women. With a low number of women in the employment sector, Sarwar hopes An-Nisa will immensely contribute to the narrowing of gender gap by making women employ themselves.

“I want women to have an option of thriving in this male-dominated field,” Sarwar says.“That’s my vision.”