ABDIJAN, IVORY COAST - Uber, the U.S.-based online taxi company, operates a mobile app that allows consumers with smartphones to book cab service from Uber drivers who use their own cars. As the company makes inroads in Africa, entrepreneurs in the West African nation of Ivory Coast are trying to stay one step ahead. At least four Uber-like car services have launched since last year.
Abidjan’s distinctive orange taxis have been zigzagging through traffic here for decades. But recently, new competition has rolled onto the streets.
In front of his house, TV producer Jean-Louis Zahibo hops into the unmarked car he ordered as the driver closes the door behind him. Taxijet sent him the details of the car and the driver by a text message on his cell phone.
Zahibo said he often carried a lot of things with him because of his work.
"If I forget it in a regular taxi, it’s unlikely I’ll get it back. And I insist on punctuality, it is paramount to me," he said.
At the headquarters of Taxijet, all cars are tracked at all times. The service, which launched last June, now receives about 100 bookings a day.
Most of Taxijet's 500 drivers use their own traditional orange taxis. But the company has begun to expand its own fleet of unmarked vehicles to meet demand.
Inspired by the American booking service Uber, Taxijet co-founder Parfait Ouattara believed some Ivorians were ready to pay a bit more for better service.
“The concept of Taxijet is to provide comfortable and safe transportation for Ivorians," Ouattara said. "Our drivers are qualified. They drive peacefully and are polite.”
Over the past year and a half, three other transportation companies have made similar bets in Abidjan, proposing various rates and levels of luxury. Taking one of these services' unmarked cars costs an average of 50 percent more than hailing a traditional orange taxi.
Entrepreneur Vangsy Goma launched its Africab service in Abidjan earlier this year.
Goma explained, “In our taxis, we have electronic tablets, on which you can check emails and city guide. There is also a 4G network available on board.”
The Congolese entrepreneur plans to expand throughout Africa, and notably in his home country, but he chose to start in Abidjan.
“Abidjan is French-speaking Africa and West Africa's powerhouse, with a growth rate around 10 percent," Goma said. "Africab targets all kind of customers, but the people most likely to use the service are the middle class.”
And it's working. Africab has already had to double its fleet. And the company now has a partnership with a big hotel.
So what does this mean for the city’s thousands of orange taxis?
Drissa Diaby of the local taxi union said they were trying to improve service. Some taxis now have GPS trackers. Others are fixing their meters, though many drivers still prefer to negotiate rates. Diaby said he’s not worried.
Diaby said the union has requested a meeting with the Ministry of Transport to discuss the new car services but he was not too worried about competition.
“We go to the working class neighborhoods. We drive 24/7 to help Ivorians." he said. "These new companies are not here to help average Ivorians. They are here to help the rich."
As for the cab drivers' notoriously reckless driving, Diaby said that’s probably not going to change. He believed it’s just part of navigating the city’s crowded streets.