Will Uber, won’t pay. Will we ever run out of corners to cut?

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

In Uganda going off-app has become a national survival skill, but one that will ultimately push society off-road...

Anyone who has used the Uber ride-hailing service in Kampala will have a catalogue of horror stories. They range from serious cases of attacks on riders, especially women at night, to relatively mundane complaints about the cleanliness, or lack thereof, of the cars, broken air conditioning, drivers who run out of fuel or who somehow never seem to have change.

 Two new scams have now emerged. In the first one, the driver accepts a trip then changes his mind but refuses to cancel so that the cancellation charge is paid by the rider. Alternatively, they drive towards the pick-up point, start the trip, but without picking up the passenger, drive around aimlessly, then end the trip. These appear to target riders paying with bank cards who get charged automatically without having to hand over cash.

Here riders have two options. Most will cancel the trip, incur the cancellation charge, and try for a new ride, and hope to get a more professional driver. Those as stubborn as your columnist will sit and watch the app and wait for the driver to blink fast.

 On the occasions when I really need to be on the move, I have asked for a lift or someone to book me another ride off their phones just to teach the half-clever Uber driver a lesson. There is a certain smugness in being notified an hour or so later – when you are already at home or in the pub reading the papers – that your driver has unfortunately had to cancel.

 They could, of course, cancel the trip request as soon as they decide they don’t want to take it, pay a small cancellation fee, then accept other trips during that time. Instead they play a waiting game with someone – me – who has options, and is petty. They cannot take other trips during this waiting game. I can. 

 In the second scam, the driver picks up the rider, then asks to go “off app” so that they negotiate the fare separately and usually higher than that estimated by the app, which is paid directly to avoid the Uber service fees.

 Such is the frequency with which these requests are made that one can only assume many riders are willing to accept this arrangement. Again, your columnist is to be missed with this nonsense.

 Many Uber drivers seem to have legitimate concerns about how much money they make from the service. These concerns are heightened by the rising cost of fuel and living, as well as Kampala’s notorious traffic gridlock that wastes otherwise earning time. Lying is bad and, in truth, your columnist has taken some trips for which he believed the fare should have been higher.

 But the solution to this problem is not to try and cripple the Uber system as I recently explained to a Mwami Walusimbi as he reluctantly drove me around the city, barely breathing with his mouth curled up into his nostrils.

 Uber and other ride-hailing apps operate on a simple value proposition: they match riders to drivers. A cab driver who takes a passenger from the city centre to Mukono has considerably higher chances of getting a passenger on the way back because the app knows which folks in Mukono want a cab into the city.

 If Mw. Walusimbi et al are not happy they should speak to Uber (which is, admittedly, notoriously non-responsive) or build their own app as cab drivers elsewhere have done.

 The real problem for Uber drivers is that the platform allows anyone with a car to make money by driving. More drivers pushes down the price of trips and, at least in the short term, cuts driver earnings. But as rides become cheaper and cars cleaner, more people will ditch their cars or upgrade from 14-seater matatus and boda bodas, increasing the earnings of Uber drivers.

 You can tell a lot about a society by its transport system and how residents navigate it. Uber, alongside other multinational franchises, represents an opening up of the Ugandan economy and even spurts of growth as a consumer class with disposable income emerges. 

The shenanigans around the system, however, reflects widespread failure of leadership to self-organise key constituencies, whether it is boda boda riders, Uber drivers, teachers, police officers, journalists, doctors, et cetera, to articulate shared interests and demand for a better deal.

 It is not just Uber drivers trying to game the system. In Uganda going off-app has become a national survival skill, but one that will ultimately push society off-road. One day we will run out of corners to cut.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.

[email protected]; @Kalinaki