In this exclusive interview for Business Elites Africa, Joseph Olaoluwa sits down with Uber‘s Communication Manager for East and West Africa, Lorraine Onduru as well as Uber Country Manager, Tope Akinwumi to discuss several topical concerns regarding the operation of the ride hailing service in Lagos and Abuja.
BEA: I want to start with recent class actions against Uber. There have been class actions in the US, with drivers taking your company to court as they seek more independence. Recently, these actions have spread to Nigeria. What do you have to say about these developments?
UBER: We consider drivers independent contractors which means they can work as many hours as they want. They have control over their time and earnings and a lot of drivers appreciate that. What we as Uber are really working towards is while we give them that flexibility and independence that they appreciate so much, how else can they have extra earning capacities via our products? We are looking at such opportunities to sort of increase their earnings. Now, we understand the different economic challenges whether it is fuel or impact of COVID-19. So, how can we, through products on our platform, give drivers that extra earnings opportunity? That is what we are really working towards as well as the protections that are there with accidents and the driver and the rider. Safety is really paramount for us.
BEA: A lot of drivers in Nigeria are saying Uber is not allowing them to fix prices and there is no value for driving here following the increase of fuel and spare parts. What is Uber’s stance to this and what rights do drivers have?
UBER: First and foremost, different drivers use the platform for different reasons. Driver A tries to use the platform while going to work for supplemental earnings while some other people use it more frequently. These Drivers are diverse in what they want from the platform but we give all of them the opportunity to talk to Uber. We do a monthly roundtable session and they also have the opportunity to send us feedback 24/7 on whatever they think is their suggestion for the platform. Talking about prices, like I said we have monthly roundtable sessions with these drivers and we talk to them about pricing and what is fair and the feedback is fantastic. We also did a survey around the price increase which was introduced May 10th, most of the drivers that communicated with us think the pricing is fair.
Something else we constantly do is monitor the situation in the country. Whether it is inflation, prices of fuel, just to ensure drivers are adequately compensated. You will agree with me that all price increases are spearheaded by Uber. We are always the first and we have always considered our drivers earnings with anything we do. Looking at what the cost profile is(fuel, maintenance), we try to ensure that it meets up to their target earnings.
BEA: What rights do drivers have? Can they demand for a price change?
UBER: The drivers have the right to talk to Uber. We understand that we have to talk to drivers to know what is going on with them. That is why every month we do a roundtable session- in Abuja, Lagos, Benin on a monthly basis to hear what their concerns are and what suggestions they have for Uber. Yes they have every right to talk to us and we always listen to them. Also, there is a roundtable and then what it does. So whether it is the insurance it provided, the safety features, maintenance of the app itself- there is a lot that goes into that; it is not an arbitrary charge. It is there for a reason so they can have a better experience with the app and the riders as well. We consider a lot of things and prices change. When Uber started five years ago, the prices changed because we take a lot of things into consideration and also make the product affordable for riders. It is a really delicate balance we maintain.
BEA: Part of the issues that spilled over from last year to this year is around safety. How is Uber committed to safety for all users?
UBER: Let’s start by saying that safety is really really important to us. We really take safety incidents seriously and one case is like too many which is why we want everyone to feel safe using the platform. Even a female or anybody can share the details of your trip with somebody who can follow along with you. There is a whole tool-kit actually on the app. You can track. It makes the trip more transparent with the GPS tracking. If you stop for too long, you get a notification asking why. Even the driver can share details of his trip. We encourage people to verify the details that the number plates match so you are sure you are getting into the right car. All these are ways which we could be more safe on the platform.
BEA: Recently, a rider narrated how she had to cancel a ride when the Uber driver she ordered pulled up in a tinted and super-suspicious car. How does Uber protect riders from suspicious drivers like that?
UBER: For the person’s name and car registration number to show in the app then they would have gone through some background checks because we don’t just allow anyone on the platform. This is why we say we need to match what we see on the app with the vehicle that pulls up in front of you. Those that currently drive on Uber in Nigeria go through a lot of verification from uploading documents to inspecting those documents, the vehicles themselves and doing some background checks on the drivers. So peradventure as a rider you get a ride that doesn’t match what obtains on the Uber platform, do not get into those vehicles and you have an option to also report that particular vehicle and something will be done about that.
BEA: Uber prices have been going up and down. Is this going to be a recurrent feature based on economic changes country-country?
UBER: The price increase is happening in the specific cities. So we did a 13% price increase in Lagos and a 20% price increase in Abuja. What this means is that we are looking at the happenings in the cities. What are the prices of things? What is the level of happenings and what drivers would like to earn? So it is more like a continuous process. We are continuously looking at what prices are now, what is inflation saying? What do drivers want and working to make sure that drivers get the best possible earnings on our platform while riders get the cheapest ride possible.
BEA: Meanwhile, fares are getting out of hand. There was one time, Uber prices screenshot on social media was around N20,000. This was during the period when the island was flooded. What is going on regarding the fares? Is there a limit to the price surge?
UBER: Let’s start by explaining surge pricing and how that helps drivers to earn more and help riders to get where they want to get faster and cheaper. Say during the flooding period, people wanted to transport themselves, but on the island there was a lot of flood. That means not many drivers want to go out right? So because of the increase in demand, there would be surge pricing to get drivers to come out and take as many rides as possible. What we constantly do in Uber is that we look at peculiarities in the cities and times and conditions in these cities and we adapt our technologies to suit that. During the last flooding, what we did was to cap our surge at a particular level so that it doesn’t go up significantly- knowing what happens in the city. So we constantly do that and we monitor that to ensure that surge pricing does not go out of hand. We constantly monitor the prices.
BEA: There is a lot of talk around low combustion and green energy. What is Uber’s support for that in Nigeria or Africa?
UBER: We have a global commitment to sustainability. In that commitment, we take into focus that different countries are at different stages in adopting green energy. Where possible or as we develop in the cities that we are in, we see what can be introduced at a certain point. But the commitment is there. Uber is an organisation and depending on the different stages the country has reached, I mentioned in Kenya, we have launched electronic scooters (motorcycles) for delivery on Uber Eats. So we are making progress. Let’s see how it goes
BEA: Do you have any extra new features?
UBER: What we have been doing for sometime where COVID-19 is concerned is that when a driver is forced to quarantine for a number of days, we give financial support for the time they are not able to work because they need quarantine as required by a health professional. That is the case.
BEA: A lot of people have observed that Uber is on a steady decline as more people switch tp Bolt. What is your take on this?
UBER: I think we like to hear about competition but what we focus on here is giving riders the best possible means of transporting themselves and drivers the best possible means of earning more. Most times, we concentrate on giving the best possible experiences to the players in our ecosystem and less focus on our competition.
BEA: Are Uber drivers scarce?
UBER: Remember when there was flooding in Lagos, did you go anywhere? No. A lot of drivers were indoors. Even I myself was indoors. Even if I went out, I probably have to be patient till the rain goes down. Inasmuch as we want to get from one place to another, we are also concerned about the effects that would have on your car and all of that. So, that explains that.
BEA: Some Uber drivers in Abuja Municipal Area Council have complained about revenue collection. These drivers said they were having issues with AMAC in Abuja to the point they felt neglected. Was Uber aware of this and what can you do to make them open more up about their challenges?
UBER: I think for the Abuja Municipal Area Council, we are constantly working with the regulators to ensure we understand regulation. We would keep working with all the key stakeholders to ensure this possibility. Few months ago, we held a roundtable session with drivers in Abuja where we discussed the issue and it is currently in court. We are seeking to have a ruling on the case so it is not something we can comment on. That being said, we told drivers that if their vehicles get impounded, we gave them a step-by-step process on how to make a request in that department. We are looking with the drivers to assist them and hope to get a speedy intervention.
BEA: The drivers also mentioned issues around parking spaces around the Abuja airport. Can you address that?
UBER: Right now we have an agreement with the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, we are in the process of getting it signed. We will have a dedicated space in the airport to pick up passengers. This means very soon, we should be sharing this news.
BEA: With regards to car insurance for drivers, are there platforms for drivers who have mild crashes or servicing beyond their budget?
UBER: All trips on the Uber platform are insured. Any particular incident that happens during the trip whether it affects the rider or driver, those trips are fully insured. In cases like a crash, all you need to do is report to us and you are fully covered. If there is an injury or something between 24-48 hours you will get covered if the due processes are followed and it is reported in the time frame.
BEA: We have noticed that a couple of drivers do offline trips. Is it part of the policy? Should it be encouraged?
UBER: I wouldn’t say this is prevalent. However, it comes up from time to time. We tell drivers that riders are their customers and we must give them the best experience on the platform. Excessive cancellation does not give riders that type of value they have paid for. It is not something that we encourage. Like I said earlier, different drivers have different needs for the platform. Some use it for alternative income. As a driver, whatever you do offline, you can choose to work 8am – 12 noon on the Lagos Ibadan Expressway for example and come back to Lagos and say I want to work on Uber for night rides. We do not encourage cancellations, we have driver trainings for that to give the riders the best possible experience on the platform.
BEA: Any new products on the way?
UBER: At Uber, what we are trying to achieve is to get as many people to move from one place to another. We believe it is right of everyone to do that. What we have discovered recently is that prices are going up and the exchange rate is getting worse everyday. So people cannot adequately transport themselves from one point to the other using the means they want to use. Earnings are going down for drivers and all of that. We are looking at ways to sort the problem and we are starting with drivers. Recently, we launched an hourly product just to give drivers more earning opportunities.
What Hourly is an alternative to on- demand- point-to-point trips that gives you availability to book a ride with a driver that takes you from one point to the other to complete a session. For example, say I want to attend a wedding, I am living in Victoria Island and I am going to say Otta or Abule Egba. This is where the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETAs) may not be so good or may take you a longer time or surge pricing, so what you can do is book a trip, for say five hours six hours. The driver took me to a wedding, reclined his chair and slept off up till the point I wanted to leave. What that means is that I employed him for six hours- he is not burning fuel or using his vehicle but what that also gives me is some sort of comfort, convenience.
So you can apply this in different scenarios, let’s say I am going for a Davido’s concert for example. After the concert, the surge will be out of the world and ETAs will be crazy. We will get people taking trips all the way from Lekki Phase 1 to VI, what you can do then is say when you are leaving your house, book a ride for say five hours or an hour till the end of the show book a ride and let him wait for you. What that does is improve earnings for the driver and help the ride enjoy convenience. We are looking at creative ways to improve transportation in Lagos.
Another product we are yet to fully launch is connect. So connect is a delivery product say in the next one month, two months, we should have it launched. I wouldn’t give a definite date for that but you know that delivery is something that isn’t fully developed here in Lagos and then with COVID now, we have to transport things to them. So we are looking at how to solve that and I don’t think there is any other better competitor to solve that.
BEA: Would the delivery involve dispatch riders or normal sedan cars?
So, we are still in the process of thinking about that. Right now, we would make use of two wheelers (dispatch riders) with other drivers having the freewill to opt in. One main attribute of Lagos is that there is a lot of traffic. Imagine you wanting to get something or drugs down to someone, and the driver is stuck in traffic…what do I do? A lot of people use Uber for deliveries now. Let’s say someone sends something to you, I get panic attacks because I don’t know where the person is if they are stuck in traffic and you keep looking at that. To solve the problem, we already understand that there is a peculiar problem in Lagos, if we are to introduce this product, it makes sense to use something that can be seamless.
Interestingly, we have connect in a number of countries like Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. It is a product we have seen work well in other markets.