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Africa

Taxi war looms in Nairobi as startups take on Uber

media Uber faces competition from other smartphone apps in Nairobi, Kenya Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach/Files

A taxi war is looming in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, where startups are hoping to outdo Uber, the global transportation network. They believe their smartphone apps are more in line with the taxi culture of Nairobi, a high-crime city where cabs are not typically hailed off the street.

In Europe, San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc. has had to contend with the hostility of well established taxi fleets and with numerous legal hurdles. In France, where Uber recently launched a helicopter service (at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival), the constitutional court and the appeals court have yet to rule on the legality of Uber services.

But in Kenya Uber’s main challenge appears to be the homegrown competition: Easy Taxi Kenya, the local franchise of a Brazil-based firm targeting emerging markets, and Maramoja, a Nairobi-based company whose name means right now in Swahili.

The Maramoja app uses its customers’ phone contacts (where the numbers of reliable cabbies are stored) to find a driver. When none is available, the app taps into their clients’ social networks to identify their friends’ and followers’ preferred drivers.

"Nairobi doesn’t really have a taxi market – we have a taxi culture," explained Jason Eisen, the Maramoja founder. "What I mean by that is that nobody goes to the side of the road, sticks their hand up and just gets in the car with the first guy that happens to pull over. This is an easy way of getting yourself mugged or kidnapped or worse."

Eisen started thinking about launching a taxi hailing service in Kenya in 2012 when he got tired of arguing about the fare with cabbies on his trips to Nairobi. Three years laters, the Maramoja app was up and running, tapping into a basin of some 150 drivers.

"Our goal is not to come between you and your favourite driver," Eisen explained in an interview. "It’s just to strenghten that relationship, to help you access him […] and then to add a support network, all these other drivers, when he has another client or is on the other side of town."

Uber
, which started operating in Nairobi in January, is offering the same service as anywhere else in the world. “We want to keep the user experience as magical as possible,” Alastair Curtis, who launched Uber in Lagos and Nairobi, told The Wall Street Journal.

Companies like Uber say they perform background checks and references on drivers, but this has not alleviated everyone’s fears.

"What really concerns me is Uber's apparent inability to check the records of drivers outside of the Unites States," wrote columnist Abigail Arunga in The Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper. "In all fairness, how good are our criminal records here in Kenya?"

In response, Uber – present in more than 270 cities in 56 countries – said that it was "streets ahead" of its rivals on safety.

"Riders can track their route, see their driver before they get in the car, and let friends know when they’re likely to arrive," Curtis wrote. "Riders can also rate their drivers at the end of each journey."

Taxi hailing apps also help bolster cabbies’ security by providing with information about customers. "Taxi drivers have been killed because they’ve picked up the wrong passenger at the wrong time," noted Peng Chen, managing director of Easy Taxi Kenya in an interview. "For them there’s always a constant threat : How do I know that this passenger that I’m picking up is safe for me ?"

As elswhere payment mode has been an issue. Uber drivers are never paid in cash. Clients make online credit-card or debit-card payments. In a country where plastic is decidedly elitist a company like Easy Taxi Kenya stands to benefit -- its drivers accept Kenyan shillings.

Can a city like Nairobi sustain more than one taxi hailing app ?

"I think that Nairobi as the tech hub of East Africa will continue on its growth trajectory," said Chen "You also have more people living in estates that may be a bit more out of the way […] and not particularly safe in the evening. As a result you will a growing taxi culture."

And smartphones to partake in it.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011

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