Uber is disrupting the taxicab experience in Lagos. Here’s how it’s doing it

If you haven’t heard, let me tell you something: Uber is a very big deal. No, not UberSocial, Uber.

Just when everyone thought that the wheel on a taxicab couldn’t be reinvented, Uber went ahead and reinvented it. Although it tries to discourage people from calling it a taxi service, preferring ‘ridesharing’ company instead, the easiest way to understand what Uber is all about is to look at it as a cab service on steroids.

However, what perfectly sums up the business idea behind the company is its tagline: Everyone’s Private Driver. Brilliant, isn’t it?  Uber works with hundreds of high-end car hire services to take anyone anywhere. With an app you can summon those cars. And passengers pay their fare through pre-registered debit or credit cards. No exchange of cash.

Five years after it first hit the roads in San Francisco, California, it has launched in  Cape Town, Johannesburg, and 200 other cities across the world. Now, Uber is in Lagos. It has given rides to people like me to places including the beach and a client meeting, avoiding the headache of driving or walking to the bus stop to beg a yellow taxi to take us to the Island. Why didn’t you come up with this idea first? Yeah, keep slapping your forehead.

But that’s not why Uber is such a terribly big deal.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Uber, founded by CEO Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, has some of the biggest names and deepest pockets in business backing it. Let’s name a couple of names:  Goldman Sachs and Google Ventures. The company is valued at $18billion and just last June raised $1.4billion in a new round of funding. In October, there are reports that its investors are preparing to add another $1b that will make challengers squirm. Many people still describe Uber as a startup, but how many startups cover so much ground in so little time.

Not many. Not even its closest competition, Lyft. Lyft is a low-cost Uber-like business founded on a similar premise that there are car owners, who may not be regular car hire drivers, who would like to turn their vehicles into cabs for a few hours a day. In response to Lyft, Uber created Uber X. But the most prestigious of Uber services is Uber SUV, because,  you know, SUVs. Uber has a few public relations challenges once in a while, like this one reported here, but it’s new in Nigeria and appears to be solving a major problem, and that is good. So, what will this startup that’s bigger than many bluechip companies mean for Nigerians, and the Nigerian taxi business?

I spoke to Alastair Curtis, the South African University of Cape Town graduate and self-described “hustler” who is the International Launcher for Sub-Saharan Africa. Mr Curtis led the team that started Uber in Lagos.

Alastair with Lagos Uber Team
Alastair with some Uber Lagos team members

So, what’s your job about?

The “Launcher” role at Uber is one of the most physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging roles that an individual will come across. It is also one of the most rewarding. In short, the Launcher has the responsibility of creating something where previously there was nothing.

The Launcher does their homework well before they set foot in a city, in order to understand the transportation pain points, regulations, and market opportunity.  As a baseline, they need to understand how a city lives and breathes.

Once in a city, the Launcher must simultaneously recruit, hire, and train a local team; develop partnerships and manage relationships with local hire car operators; create a marketing strategy to scale the client base and increase visibility; create a pricing strategy; explore business development opportunities such as sponsorships, partnerships, and co-promotions; form relationships with local press; and throw a legendary launch event to officially kick off the city

The travel is intensive.  Launchers are on the road over 300 days per year.  We live out of suitcases, and our most important possessions are our Macbook Airs and our passports.  If you tend to get homesick after a few days or don’t sleep well unless you’re in your own bed, this is definitely not the position for you.

That being said, our Launch team is entirely devoted to the cause because we love what we do and we’re passionate about Uber. Nothing is better than watching a city that you’ve launched, and the team you’ve launched it with, take off and grow.  Or hearing from a partner that, due to his increased business, he’s able to expand his fleet and hire additional drivers. Being a Launcher for Uber is a privilege.

Now, Uber is in Nigeria. Why should anyone care?

Uber was founded to help people get a reliable ride, wherever and whenever.  Upon request, a GPS-based dispatch built into the software simply sends the nearest driver to the requesting rider, as pinpointed on a Google map – for any neighbourhood. Specific to Lagos, we have UberBLACK which covers the high-end transportation segment using SUVs and high end sedans and equivalent. We are all about giving riders choice when moving from A to B and we are leading the way in the future of mobility and how we think about transport in our cities.

How is Nigeria different from or similar to the other markets in which Uber operates?

Lagos is similar to other emerging markets in that we have the same challenges as any other emerging market city – such as getting people comfortable with card payments or local knowledge of Google maps. However, we find that all it takes is a little getting used to for any rider or partner to get over their hesitation.

Alastair with Ice Prince
Alastair with Ice Prince

There have been a few protests by cabdrivers in some of the places that Uber operates, what are your plans to get everyone on board in Lagos?

We are changing the way people think about getting around, and our type of disruption is bound to cause resistance by transport structures that have been in place for many years.  Our priority in Lagos is to bring more choice to riders and great business to our partner drivers who use our platform to make their time more efficient. It wasn’t difficult to get everyone on board as people throughout Nigeria really believe we are bringing value to their transportation ecosystem by offering a product that is unprecedented in safety and convenience.

You’re launching soon in Abuja. That’s two cities in a very short time. How many Nigerian cities is Uber planning to cover?

Uber is an ambitious company. We’re in over 205 cities, across more than 45 countries already. We know that Lagos loves Uber and have been overwhelmed with the interest in our services and it made sense to go to Abuja next. We want to be delivering our safety and value across all of Nigeria, and Africa, so watch this space.

Back to Lagos. How many drivers does Uber now employ?

Uber does not employ drivers [directly]. We are a technology company that partners with transportation operators to provide them with the technology to enable them to find riders in their vicinity. We don’t provide specific details of how many drivers use the Uber platform but our objective is to match supply with demand, and helping to get a car when people need it the most. This is where the technology is so important: our aim is to get the ‘estimated time of arrival’ to as little time as possible.

Do these drivers have to work full time?

Uber prides itself on being offering a flexible working arrangement to all of its drivers which is why no driver works ‘for’ Uber. Drivers simply log-on via a smartphone – which we provide – in their cars and with a couple of taps on the driver app are automatically connected with riders

They can work for as little or as much as they like; they are completely free to decide

How does Uber recruit the drivers?

Our partner drivers are all licensed existing transportation providers, licensed by the local transport authority].  Each driver is personally screened and trained by our team.  In addition to this, when you order an Uber you get sent – via the app – a picture of the driver and his registration details so you know exactly who is driving you.  When you are in the car you can send – via text message – a link to an online map where a friend or loved-one can track your entire journey via GPS.  A driver is rated by the rider after every Uber trip.  This means we are constantly monitoring and improving the quality quality of service to create an experience like never before.

Uber seems to offer an attractive job opportunity to young Nigerias. How many jobs do you think Uber will be creating in Nigeria?

It’s too soon to tell but if the great response is anything to go by, we think we will be bringing more income and flexibility to a lot of jobs. Don’t forget, we don’t employ drivers – they are already working as such – we just help make their job more efficient and create the right opportunities for more riders to use Uber.

Nigeria is largely a debit card country; how will Uber ensure that people always pay?

We believe that seamless, electronic payments make moving around Lagos easier for Uber customers. Uber riders have embraced this since our testing began here. We think that the fact we are cashless is extremely valuable and we see a general trend moving towards digital payments. Riders don’t have to worry about carrying cash, and can use the same Uber app and payment options in any of the 200+ cities around the world that we operate in. We are always exploring additional payment options, but also believe that we are at the leading edge of technology.

If a person takes an Uber ride on an empty debit card, how will Uber get its money back?

If the debit card is empty the Uber system will not allow the rider to take a ride. If the rider has taken a ride and the value of the ride was more than what was in their account, their account will go into arrears and the rider will not be able to request another ride until they have topped up their account.

Please describe a typical Uber experiece – from the moment the passenger decides to go out using Uber to the final moments

Firstly, once you’ve ordered an Uber you get on the app the details of the driver including his picture, name and registration. This means you are 100 percent sure you are getting into the right car. Secondly, at the end of the trip you instantly receive an email with an overview of your journey including a map with a red line showing the exact and complete journey the driver took. Thirdly, any rider can send – via a text message – a link which allows a friend, relative or loved one to track in real time the exact route the car is taking via GPS.

What part of Lagos does Uber cover at the moment? What parts of Lagos does Uber plan to cover?

Trips can originate anywhere on the Islands and Mainland and terminate anywhere the rider wants. As the city grows Uber will have coverage and great ETA’s in almost any area within Lagos.

How come Uber does not advertise? That’s uncharacteristic of international brands launching in Nigeria.

We strongly believe in partnership marketing, that is partnering with events or locations or brands in order to provide their customer base with the Uber experience. If it is for an event, for example, we partner with them to make it easier for attendees to go back and forth with a discounted ride, or a free ride for a first time user.


Hat tip to Chukwuka Ekeledo of Mobilizr for making this happen.

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