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Uber Struggles, But Spreads in Africa

FILE - A passenger gets a ride from an Uber driver in South Africa.
FILE - A passenger gets a ride from an Uber driver in South Africa.

The tech-savvy alternative to taxicabs, Uber, is trying to put down roots in Africa, but the U.S.-based company has had to adapt itself to African norms — as well as pushback from the traditional taxi industry.

Uber first established itself in South Africa in 2013, and is now available in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban. While it presented a challenge to more traditional forms of public transport, it also provided a new employment option in a market where jobs were scarce.

Uber launched in Nigeria the following year, with services available in Lagos and Abuja. By 2015, it was available in Mombasa, Kenya, as well.

Uber's director for sub-Saharan Africa, Alon Lits, has high hopes for the company, which relies on self-motivated drivers using their own cars to provide rides. Clients arrange for an Uber ride through Uber's mobile app, which then routes the ride request to a nearby Uber driver.

Lits tells VOA that Uber could solve a lot of transportation problems in African cities, where public transport is not always available or convenient.

FILE - An Uber taxi driver sits in his car in Nairobi, March 9, 2016.
FILE - An Uber taxi driver sits in his car in Nairobi, March 9, 2016.

Likewise, it could offer opportunities for people who have access to a car, but lack a job.


But some things that have worked well in the United States, where Uber has been very successful, have not worked in African cities. In the U.S., part of the convenience of the service is that all payments are made by credit card, meaning the app can automatically arrange the payment without a physical transaction between rider and driver. In Africa, payment in cash is more practical.

Uber also had to adjust its mapping service. The Google maps that work well in the United States were not as useful in Africa, where not all places have a formal address. Uber switched to the Kenyan startup company Okhi, which combines photos of physical locations with GPS data to help drivers locate their clients and destinations.

Perhaps most difficult has been the pushback from local taxi drivers, who find their business threatened by a younger, faster competitor. In South Africa and Kenya, cabdrivers have staged regular anti-Uber protests, arguing that the government should prohibit Uber from operating inside the country's borders.


But change to the taxi industry seems inevitable.

While Uber is currently operating in five African nations, with at least three more in its immediate future, South American startup Easy Taxi is now operating in four: Egypt, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. A service called Taxi Jet is piloting its car-sharing service in Ivory Coast. And Maramoja — Swahili for "instantly" — began connecting cars with riders in Kenya in February 2015, only one month after Uber.

"After Uber," in fact, might be the best way to refer to the changes wrought on an entire industry by one little app.

Marissa Melton contributed to this report.