Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Uber vs Isma

I am deeply distrustful of Uber. In just four months of reporting in New York, I covered three protests against them. From my interviews with yellow cab drivers (often immigrants who have seen their kids through medical and law schools working owl shifts) and an Uber rep (who spoke in talking points at sales pitch velocity), I decided Uber was using technology for evil. I came to see the company as the large capitalist who disrupts a little people’s business environment just because its technology can make it a tonne of money doing that. In New York, I never hailed an Uber even once but on the occasions I shared one with friends, the conversations I had with Uber drivers confirmed my biases. They said; the Uber cut off their fares was too high and that by cleverly labelling them contractors (even though they work full time for it), Uber was getting away with not providing any employee benefits.
When I heard Uber was coming to Kampala, I had two thoughts. 1. That I would never hail one because they are evil and I have Isma, my cabbie. He knows my workplace, home, daughter’s school, mother’s home, best friend’s home. Why would I dump him? 2. That Uber would do well in Kampala because small business people here, like cabbies, are the kind who suffer and die silently, knowing there is neither a policy framework nor an invested politician to protect them.
So, on my first trip to my mother’s house ( an 8 minutes drive from my place), I, of course, called Isma. He charged me sh20,000 and I had to talk him down from sh25,000! I have always felt that my convictions in support of small business run really deep. It turns out sh20,000 is how deep they run. I downloaded that Uber app immediately. As if Uber had spied on my latest Isma experience, it charged me 28,000 for the 45 minute ride I took next: to Kyanja from Makindye. Love at second consideration! That my friend, is how Isma and I broke up.
Now, of course, I’m not going to call an Uber to drop Hailey off to school when we oversleep and miss the van. Nor am I going to, when I need her to be driven home alone on a Sunday out, so I can continue on to my date. On those occasions of desperation, I will booty call Isma and use the trust relationship we have built over the years. But, on most days, I don’t even know that guy.
It also doesn’t sound like Uber is terrible for Kampala drivers. Ken who took me to Kyanja said that he works for a boss who has a fleet of five under Uber and is paid sh500,000 a month. He also gets a daily allowance of 20,000. Sounds like a decent job, no? In turn, he said, he made 530,000 in fares the first week he drove Uber; which he must give to his boss (no stories) because the app tracks the fares earned. I thought sh530,000 a week seemed too high to make from fares that low but Barigye explained it this way, “in a special, you get one or two customers a day and overcharge them. With Uber, you get up to 20 customers because the app keeps telling you where to find them.” He picked me from Kisasi and charged me sh20,000 for a ride to Makindye. He used to drive tourists on out of town excursions, doing regular cabbing in-between the tourism clients. He is keeping one of his two vehicles on the tourists beat (with another driver), but driving Uber full time himself.
I am happy. They are happy. And maybe Isma will join Uber too. My liberal sensibilities are sitting easy. But Isma’s partner driver, the guy he sends when he isn’t available, swears to me that he won’t join Uber. “Balina ebyaabwe by’ebaabazza,” was his explanation. Basically, my stories about the other Uber drivers seemed too good to be true to him. He thinks Uber wants them (and us) hooked and will later pull the rug from under our feet . I hope he is wrong but from the Uber fights I have read of or reported on elsewhere, I wonder if he is a cynical but prophetic voice we ought to listen to.
Oh, side note about Uber: From its driving directions, you learn that the roads in this city actually have names. As it turns out, I don’t live along “the road which slopes up from the bodaboda stage at Chocorate City Bar”. No, friend. It is Upper Hill Lane.