I recently was on holiday in Kenya. Given my interest in the #GigEconomy, it was hard not to notice the huge billboards advertising for Uber drivers once we arrived in Nairobi. So I decided to explore what was happening in the gig world in this part of Eastern Africa.
Uber entered the Kenyan market in 2015, according to the World Economic Forum, (WEF) who also noted that Kenyans have taken over 1 million trips and the app gets over 100,000 hits a month. (Just for perspective, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, San Francisco gets about 150,000 trips a day.) I asked David, my first Uber driver in Nairobi, what he thought of Uber, and he said it was a great improvement over being an “Avis driver”. Avis drivers are those hired by big hotels to drive clients about – an Uber without the platform but with a car. As an Avis driver, David had a boss, which was something he didn’t like. “Now I am my own boss”, he said proudly, ” and no one gets to tell me what to do,” a sentiment voiced by gig economy workers worldwide. That said, he did think that the fee Uber charges was too much. Sure, they gave him the customer, but he has to do the hustling to be out and about to get the business.
He mentioned that Safaricom, the major telecommunications provider in Eastern Arica tried to go up against them with an app called the Little Ride Hail app. He did not think it has gotten much traction against Uber. However the WEF notes that the Safaricom product is cheaper and has in car WiFi. It also has incorporated unique features meant to appeal to women, most notably the ability to ask for a female driver. Nonetheless, Uber still owns the majority of the market.
When I asked David why he did not have the Uber icon in his window, he just shrugged and said it was better not to in some cases. Kevin, my next driver was a bit more specific about not being identified as an Uber driver. Apparently Uber is not permitted at the airports. Those who appear there would most likely have to bribe someone or perhaps a few people to be able to pick up the fare. “It’s just not worth it”, Kevin replied.
Kevin too had been a driver previously, but he had worked for an HVAC firm. He likes driving for Uber because he is in control of his time, he can do some really long days if he wants to take off a bit. He finds it so much more enjoyable as well, because he gets to meet all sorts of different and interesting people. “Like me?”, I asked. “Yes.”, he chuckled.
It is no surprise Uber is making inroads in Nairobi, since it is one of the more tech savvy parts of Eastern Africa. A tech corridor adjacent to the city is being touted as the “Silicon Savannah”. Additionally, Uber is testing some service options in Kenya not available elsewhere, like offering performance information to a financial services partner to help drivers develop credit profiles.
There is a certain symmetry to the emergence of ride hailing platforms in Kenya, because historically, transportation has afforded many Kenyans regular gigs. Given the weaknesses of public transportation, entrepreneurial folks with access to vehicles have gone into business for themselves. For example Humphrey is a driver who works for my daughter’s company in Kilifi, but was happy to have a side gig transporting me to and from the Mombasa airport. Likewise, Steven in Nairobi welcomed a 4-day gig taking us all around the city including a 2 day sojourn in the Great Rift Valley. When economic opportunities can be sparse, gig work can make a big difference to the average Kenyan. (Since they both Steven and Humphrey had cars, they qualify as average or even middle class.)
In smaller towns, other transportation gigs are the bota botas and the tuk tuks. The former are motorcycle drivers, who will give you a ride around town for a 1000 Kenyan shillings (about a dollar) or so. One or two passengers is typical, but I also saw a family of four on a bota bota. The bota drivers tend to be young men who hang around markets, hotels, and restaurants waiting for potential customers. Locals carry the cards of their favorite bota drivers and ring them in advance when they want a lift. They are transportation entrepreneurs, looking for gigs wherever possible.
The tuk tuks are small contraptions, narrower than a golf cart but with about the same range of power and hence speed. Their diesel engines make a ‘putt putt’ sound which may be what inspired the name. They can carry 2-3 passengers as well as gear. And, and even though they are only about 10 feet long, I have seen several hauling big loads of lumber or roofing materials, whatever needs to be done. These drivers too are entrepreneurs who give their cards to restaurants, hotels and locals to build their clientele. This entrepreneurial flair in transportation is not just on land, One fishing boat captain in Watamu also gave paddle board lessons and did kayak snorkeling trips; whichever gig was in demand for the day, was what he would do. Similarly, a Dhow boat captain in Kilifi was a fisherman, but did morning snorkel trips and evening sunset sails.
A side note here is that these gigs work especially well because of the ubiquity of mpesa in Kenya. Mpesa is the digital payment system which operates through cell phones and enables cashless transactions of all types between any parties who have cell phones. Safaricom , interestingly enough, is the originator of mpesa. Whereas many digital talent platforms in the US tout the benefits of being able to settle the transaction through their platforms, that benefit may not be significant in Africa; Kenyans are already used to doing that via mpesa.
Given that there is a heritage of gig work in Kenya, I am optimistic that more types of gig work through other gig platforms will thrive. There appears to be only one local platform, LiveLuvo, which is more like a merchandise marketplace than a talent one. That said, there are hundreds and hundreds of Kenyans on the Upwork website selling their expertise, from web designers to researchers to finance experts. Whether Kenyan companies are buying their services I do not know. But surely they will.
I had dinner one night in Nairobi with a seasoned entrepreneur, Angelous Kamande, founder of Jawabu Business Consultants, an independent practice designed to help launch small and growing businesses, a segment referred to in Kenya as SGBs. He was intrigued to hear of the plethora of talent platforms through which he may be able to secure expertise to assist his clients. ” Even an agronomist?” he asked. “Absolutely.” I answered and offered a few sites, like Zintro and GLG that should be able to help. I also suggested, as an expert in SGBs In Kenya, he might want to put himself on those sites. “Absolutely,” he responded with a gleam in his eye, because he sees the future of work in Kenya and the opportunity it promises.