Uber Accra:  Global Solutions to Local Movement?

Yesterday I pulled out my iPhone and requested an Uber to take me from my hotel in Osu to the Shiashie bus stop, where I would meet a friend who had graciously volunteered to drive me up to Ashesi University where I had meetings.  Last year, rumors circulated that Uber might set up an office in Accra, but the company was slow to launch.  Some suspected that the company was reluctant after the well-publicized failure of Easy Taxi on its first foray into West Africa.  Easy Taxi also promised to launch in Ghana, but that promise never seemed to manifest.

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Easy Taxi was not a “name.”  It had no cache among West Africa’s elite and middle-class populations who would be the most obvious initial target for its services.  And in a region dominated by the cash economy and dependent on indigenous, entrepreneurial motor transport systems, the idea of app-based taxi services seemed aspirational–an attempt to bring order to systems that are widely derided as confusing, frustrating, and expensive.  These apps standardize prices based on distance and time in transit, creating mobile, app-based meters that would eliminate the constant negotiating and the uncertainty about prices that seemed to fluctuate wildly based on driver preference, petrol prices, and traffic.  But the very characteristics that seemed to promise change also raised questions about their appropriateness.  While mobile money like Mpesa took off in East Africa and served as a foundation for the success of other app-based programs like taxi services, in West Africa, mobile money has never quite taken off on a large scale and the economy remains largely cash-based outside of the shops, restaurants, cafes, and hotels of the elite.

I assumed that Uber backed out, that the rumor was nothing more than that.  So I was surprised to see reports of Uber’s launch start appearing on Facebook and Instagram at the beginning of the summer.  Celebrities signed on as “brand ambassadors“, bringing a bit of glitz and glamour to the launch event, which was also attended by the US Ambassador and various Ghanaian government officials.  Celebrities and partner companies took to Instagram to promote the launch and encourage their followers to take a ride on the new service, offering “promo codes” that would provide 15 Cedis off a first ride.  If someone was strategic and organized, I think you could probably collect at least 20 free rides.  People who tried the service (including me!) posted images and reviews of their ride.

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Unflattering photo with my Uber driver, Prince from an Instagram post

Many people shared rumors and reports about the new service.  Graduate students told me that some people had been cheated out of their money after drivers demanded fares in excess of those reported on the app.  With only 100 cars, others said that you often could not find an available ride.  Many others questioned how widely this system would be adopted if  it required a smart phone and a credit card.  Smart phones are more popular than ever, but they are still not widespread.  Who was going to use this service?  Those in Accra most likely to invest in the social and economic capital of a company like Uber–the city’s elite class of returnees and cosmopolitan citizens–were the least likely to use its services, favoring instead their own private cars.

My Uber driver, Prince, pulled up in a Suzuki and waited for me to come out.  Prince told me that he worked for a company called Hire Transport.  While he was paid a salary for working 10 hour shifts with the Uber car, the company collected the fare.  I initially suspected that this practice reflected strategic negotiations within a new system.  However, drivers soon informed me that this was an explicit arrangement between Uber and some of the country’s more established taxi companies.  These arrangement ensured that there would be at least some cars on the road as the system launched.

Uber’s adjustment to the market in Ghana has created a new ethos around the company in Ghana, which contrasts sharply with the debates and values it invokes in the US.  For American millennials Uber is both an alternative to weak public transport infrastructure and a symbol of an economy of precarity and flexibility, which provides income that funds other entrepreneurial activities, allowing young men and women to follow their passions while still putting food on the table of their own apartments (rather than their parents’ houses).  In a weak economy with high rates of unemployment, the flexibility of Uber also provides opportunities for those who are unable to secure salaried, full-time employment.  In Ghana, however, these arrangements with taxi companies raise a different set of issues.  Are drivers being paid sufficiently?  How much do companies profit off of driver labor?  Are these jobs more desirable than typical taxi work?  (Prince suggests that he can work fewer hours than his last job–10 instead of 15 hours per day–though his last job also involved driving for a company.)  How long will that arrangement last before drivers start moving on to better opportunities?   And will individual car owners ever start working for the company along the American model?

There are some things about the system that are incredibly appealing.  Cars are nicer, self-contained, and air conditioned.  It is easier to call a taxi from any location, and the fares were significantly cheaper than traditional taxis.  So far, the service has been most popular among foreigners and middle-class people who made use of the promo codes (though the service reportedly took 5 cedis out of their accounts when they signed up, cutting into the initial offer).  Uber will, apparently take cash or PayPal (which is also not widely used in Ghana).  I honestly never never noticed whether this was an option in the US, since the appeal of Uber was that it did not require cash.  It seems that this possibility is built into the app itself, or that Uber is adjusting its services slightly to local markets.

Even as the company takes on new characteristics in Ghana, it seems to raise similar concerns about the accessibility of its services and the morality of its labor practices.  It seems unlikely that Uber will fundamentally alter the ubiquitous taxi industry in Accra.  What seems more likely is that alternative Ghanaian apps will emerge to compete with Uber, tapping into local markets by speaking more directly to the demands and realities of local passengers and being more transparent about the organization of their services.

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