Uber’s ambition to conquer the world and make “transportation as reliable as running water,” as the corporation’s chief executive said, will come with flat tires and a pothole of challenges in Africa. The planet’s largest continent is not ready to add a host of Uber problems to its already underfunded transportation sector. This, coupled with the failure by the company to distinguish between an employee and an independent contractor, will result in endless legal battles.
The ordinary man in the streets has had a hard time understanding the concept of Uber. At the core of the company’s identity crisis are questions like: What is Uber? Does it have employees? Is it a metered taxi or just a smartphone application? These questions and more have been an epicenter of antagonism all over the world and continue to hog the limelight of the app-based taxi firm. For starters, Uber Technologies Inc. is a technologically driven service for hailing a driver who will take you to your destination in an unmetered taxi. The ride is tracked through a dedicated driver/passenger app. After reaching the destination, the passenger pays “a competitive fare” for the service provided.
Alon Lits, the general manager of the corporation in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), describes the company in veiled terms. He calls it a “technology open to a broad number of taxi drivers to boost their occupancy rates and chances for profit.” This means that anyone with a car can share in the economy by connecting to the app, but therein lies the Uber problem.
The traditional taxi driver, who drives a passenger with an eye to the dashboard meter, has not accepted the Uber invasion of his territory. The long hours, low wages and unbearable working conditions have made taxi drivers fight for their long-held terrain in an attempt to fend off any agent of change in the taxi industry. To that end, ride-sharing drivers have been threatened with violence and risk not only their smartphones, but also their physical well-being. This alone will deflate Uber’s tires and affect the smooth ride towards its vision and ambition to conquer Africa and the rest of the world.
While South Africa boasts well-manicured road infrastructure thanks to the controversial e-tolling project, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa lack good facilities to allow high-tech taxis to have a smooth ride. Some roads are in a state of decay, save for those around the city center, airports and those reserved for the presidential entourage. This means Uber will not have a broad field in which to operate and impose its global presence in African cities. The smartphone requirement, which in Africa comes with a costly Internet connection, will dampen the ordinary man‘s wish to have a ride in the app-hailed car. The ambitions of the taxi firm to increase its global presence will result in flat tires in Africa, which could make for a gloomy financial outlook for Uber.
The failure by the San Francisco-based company to not distinguish between an employee and an independent contractor remains an impediment. If a ride-sharing service company want to colonize Africa, assurance must first be given to the drivers that they will be recognized as employees. A court decision by Judge Edward Chen should unsettle Uber leadership. The San Francisco judge held that the corporation should recognize San Francisco’s drivers as employees rather than as independent contractors.
This ruling should come as a warning to co-founder Travis Kalanick that the road ahead for any African venture could be fraught with legal hurdles. Claims that they are just a smartphone application will be viewed with suspicion and will result in diminishing their concept of innovation and accessibility. The corporation leaders will have to mend their model and make it not only legally permissible, but also accessible to people from all walks of life in Africa. If not, the company’s ambition to conquer the world will result in flat tires in Africa.
Opinion by Shepherd Mutsvara
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