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January 19, 2019

Entrants Must Pay Attention To Kenyans' Peculiarities

Samuel and I have been together for a good 10 years, I think. Sometimes I stray, I admit that – and sometimes Samuel will help me do so by sending me his brother, or one of his sidekicks (hello David, George, Peter, Evans!). I’m talking about my cabbie, of course!

Like many Nairobians, I have ‘my guy’. Samuel – located mostly at Sarit Centre – is the man: I’ve sent him off for errands, to fetch new gas bottles, pay in cheques. I gave him my house keys when I left the country and he passed them to a friend arriving the next day to stay at my house.

He once drove a bunch of friends and me through Tsavo to Lamu (that’s a whole story in itself, on my blog post as ‘Tsavo in a taxi’. It includes a guardian angel who looked like Osama bin Laden. Thank you again, sir).

Special mark of confidence: Samuel’s taxi is also the one that the intrepid doglet uses. Yes, the doglet takes a taxi, because he’s a big dog like that (although I still have to pay for it because he doesn’t have money).

I’ve diversified a bit recently though and collected a few numbers from guys who work for one of the local cab firms as Samuel doesn’t work nights unless you book him in advance.

Easy Taxi, and now Uber, opening shop in Nairobi made me think a bit more about my taxi usage. I definitely take more taxis these days because it saves me from road rage and beating people with a stick. And because parking downtown is nearly impossible.

If I go out at night, I can have more than one drink if I cab it (don’t drink and drive, good people. I really don’t care if you have a death wish, but I care a lot about my own health and safety, and about the Merc, too. And no, you’re not the one exception who is still an amazing driver when drunk).

I have used an Easy taxi once, as a friend had called it for me, but not since – I either walk out of a building to find a cab, or book one of my guys.

Uber have been looking at the Kenyan market for a while, and their opening has triggered some discussion amongst the Focus Group (aka Facebook friends). Like Easy Taxi, they are not a taxi firm: they don’t own any taxis, but register drivers and create the digital platform that connects them with clients. Moses Kemibaro loved their app, but my yoga/pizza buddy Matina (in a blog piece for the WSJ) said that the driver she called was late, and clueless about the hotel she wanted to go to.

Since the taxi trade isn’t as tightly regulated as elsewhere, I don’t expect the same industry backlash that we have seen in other markets. However, I do wonder about Uber’s pricing formula that factors in the time spent on the trip – in Nairobi’s epic jams, that won’t make much sense, and it wouldn’t be negotiable. Also, I doubt that the cancellation fee of Sh300 will excite people much.

I laughed a bit at Uber’s claim that "all partner-drivers undergo a comprehensive biometric criminal background check before they are allowed to drive on the Uber system" – is that possible in Nairobi? Is there a biometric database for criminals? Most interesting. Where exactly – in AngloLeasing Centre?

Anyway. I think one of the bigger stumbling blocks for Uber will be that they don’t accept M-Pesa payments (or cash, for that matter). Like many people, I feel reluctant about handing out my card number. And I’ve come to expect M-Pesa payment options from vendors of any kind in Nairobi as a matter of principle.

One of the Focus Group dug up an article from October 2013 that Uber were ‘exploring’ M-Pesa payments for Nairobi, but it looks like that exploration has not yielded much. This is particularly intriguing against current news that card payments have fallen by 18.2 per cent in favour of mobile money in Kenya.

Ex-Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph can tell Uber – and other market entrants – bible-length tales about Kenyans’ peculiarities. And, more importantly, why it is imperative to pay close attention to them.

Given that Easy Taxi reportedly struggle signing up enough new customers to their platform, I do wonder if both companies are paying enough attention to the specifics of the Nairobi market, not the least because here, the entry barriers to the taxi business are incredibly low and so there are lots of them around.

One of the Focus Group also suggested that maybe those companies should look into signing up boda bodas, and provide neat, branded helmets. Given the rate of crime perpetuated by moped muggers, I think that a biometric crime database would come in really handy, and it would be a bit more of a novel idea.

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