Uber’s cheapest ride option - UberX - is making a mark in Kampala.
The new kid on the block launched just over a month ago, and seems to be the redeemer Kampala commuters have been waiting for.
The average commuter in the dusty city is used to religiously boarding matatus for their daily commute. For those hemmed in traffic jams and want a quick way - boda bodas come in handy here, but the bike riders can take dangerous risks and they often lack regard for traffic regulations. It’s chaotic.
For Uganda's middle class, if a little extra money comes their way, they’d buy themselves a 2nd or 3rd or God knows what generation of reconditioned cars imported from Japan.
Another option, different from the above, are cabs. Many of these are common within the metropolitan area, and the suburbs near the airport. However, you could find yourself haggling hard for a fair deal. It’s alleged that the cabbies exploit unsuspecting passengers, on the premise that they are quite comfortable and are driven by sane drivers, compared to public transport drivers, who are known for being rabid and imbecilic.
In short, public transport is a nightmare.
However, judging from the comments of first time Uber users in Kampala, many are excited. A few jitters, here and there, but in the interim, it looks attractive.
Look at it in this way: unbeatable prices, metered pricing, and drivers not trying to force conversation. Just tap of an app on a smartphone, and a ride arrives to pick you up. After the ride, payments can be made by card or good old cash. Mobile money integration is said to be in the pipeline. Magnifico.
For a base rate of UGX 1,300 (38 US cents), UGX 900 (26 US cents) per km, and UGX 200 (5 US cents) per minute charge, the price is quite fair, almost a steal. For a 4 passenger Uber-X, one pays just about UGX 12,000 (US$ 3.50) for a 10km trip, compared to UGX 30,000 (US$8.80) if they had used regular cabs.
However, one could argue that a matatu trip costs about UGX 1,500 (44 US cents), ten times less than the above options. That's where the differentiator comes in. While you can ride alone in an Uber, you're packed in with fourteen other passengers in a matatu, and the drivers can be reckless bordering on lawless. They are fast and furious, just like the bodas.
It’s easy to argue that the passenger who uses cabs or Uber is more sophisticated than ordinary boda boda or matatu user. You can even go ahead and quote Peter Drucker’s gospel on target markets and what not. But until you see a ‘sophisticated’ person abandon their car in the middle of a slow motion traffic jam in favour of a boda boda is when you realize that the market has intersections. And these are huge.
Without making sweeping generalisations, many Ugandans trying to beat time for important meetings especially in and around the city centre find bodas much handy, regardless of status. Numbers don’t lie, there are over 100,000 bikes in Kampala alone and they have been growing wildly in the recent past. This only signals that, regardless of the threat they continue to present to passengers' lives and property, they are Kampala’s favorite transportation mode.
But the real nightmare for Uber isn’t bodas or matatus.
It’s the administration of the city and the policies targeted towards transport and logistics sector. They seem not to have the future planned for. The revenue body, for example, issues a reported 100 plus logbooks for newly imported cars. Majority of these are to be driven around Kampala. And a few are to be converted into Ubers anyway.
Unlike Facebook or Google, that are trying so hard to build network linkages to places with no internet connectivity, Uber can’t build more roads or fancy flyovers to mitigate the nightmare traveling at peak hours can mean. The only thing Uber can do is to sing kumbaya, and pray that roads are worked on.
In fact, traffic jams mean more time spent in an Uber and hence more money made for the taxi hailing app. But this is potentially detrimental and disastrous. Passengers are not ready to pay an arm and leg.
Peak hours in Kampala are not your ordinary peak hours. Peak hours in Kampala carry on throughout the entire day, not particularly in the mornings or evenings when people are commuting to and fro work. They are influenced by extant factors. When it threatens to rain, drivers go into combat mode, they want to rush as fast as possible off the roads. Then the never ending roadworks that cause unnecessary traffic jams.
Now couple that with surge pricing...
As intimated to me by two Uber drivers for the rides I have so far taken. Business had increased by more than 300%. They, in different tones, averred that business was good. And in the next 3 years would be mainstream, they predicted. One thing they were excited about was the quality of passengers; that they are sane. They hold similar opinions of matatu drivers, that they often just lose it on the road
It's only been around for a month, but Uber could potentially disrupt the transport and logistics industry in Kampala. Their tech stack is one users can trust. Cars are tracked in real-time and elaborate background checks are carried out on drivers. Where doing logistics, especially small and mid sized logistics, Uber has a big opportunity in dominating this fore. It’s all about trust.
Kampala is the unofficial party town in Uganda's Central Region. Revelers are able to go from hangout to hangout at night, which used to be a nightmare in and of itself if one didn’t have their own car. Given the tranquility that prevails on Kampala roads at night and on weekends, Uber makes a good deal.
Looks like the Uber party is just getting started.