Electronic cab hailing has made booking taxis easier in recent times as it is just a swipe or phone call away with the help of the taxi booking platforms that abound nowadays. The electronic cab-hailing experience is not very new as Africans are adapting to it fast.
But the case is not the same in Uganda, as the transportation landscape as a whole is progressing at a painfully slow rate. So even the cab hailing experience is a little bit on the not so positive side. In looking outside our shores to other inspiring entrepreneurship stories, Mark Karamira gave us a feel of what the transportation landscape in Uganda looks like in general, and what his startup, Spe Taxi Cab is doing to change the narrative.
A journey into the very thickness of Kampala’s transportation landscape
The city of Kampala is very peculiar unlike any I have seen or heard anywhere prior to my conversation with Mark. With a landmass of 189 km² (73 sq mi), the city is much smaller compared to other commercial African cities like Lagos for instance; which covers an area of 999.6 km². Yet, as of 2013, Kampala commands a staggering population of 2.5 million people. And according to Mark “There are lots of people still trooping into the city en masse to find better opportunities”.
If you doubt Mark’s claim, the country’s population rose from 37.58 million in same 2013 to 39.66 million in January, 2016. It’s hard not to imagine how that sheer population increase one way or the other poses a threat to structured transportation within the capital city.
In addition to being poorly planned, along with the many difficulties of owning and operating a vehicle within the Ugandan capital, there is also the annoying practice of a person’s look or dressing affecting regular taxi cab fares.
According to Mark, foreigners are charged exorbitantly, while the working class Ugandans — especially those wearing ties — get charged nearly the same fares with their foreign counterparts. For those middle and lower class citizens who can’t afford the taxi services and still want to avoid the annoying taxi drivers altogether, they’re sure to find cheaper service commuting by either the boda-bodas (motorcycle and apparently, the fastest of all three means of public transport available in Uganda) or mutatu; otherwise known as Kamunye (an old traditional 14-16 seater van that runs specific routes and is the most commonly used modes of public transportation in Uganda).
As Mark kept talking about the mutatu as our interview progressed, it all started making sense to me. At this point, I began to think of the Nigerian version of the mutatu (the danfo). In truth, they are a real pain to contend with. As we’d have it, Mark then went on to validate my inner thoughts when he said “they drive very erratically, they do not follow traffic rules. Sometimes you have to wait a very long time at the staging area (bus stop) where they wait and pick passengers, if the bus is already full, you have to wait for a longer time. When you finally enter and happen to be one of the first to get into it, you’d also have to wait for it to fill out before you finally alight”
Evidently, we can easily deduce from the above comment that they’re extremely necessary for a large part of the general populace, but their apparent inconvenience is really something to worry about. Most times, the buses are old and so worn that they are dubbed “Dangerous mechanical condition” by the locals, and that also says a lot about the safety for the majority of people who use them on a daily basis.
So it is in this sphere that Spe Taxi Cab is looking to innovate and according to Mark, “bring a little bit of sexiness back into the taxi cab business”.
How Spe is changing the story
Mark Karamira is one of many Ugandans who have been enduring the over 30 year-old public transportation system until Spe Taxi Cab, a startup he founded a little over a year ago, committed to being part of the solution to clean up the city.
Spe Taxi Cab sounds like a mouthful if you’re probably hearing it for the first time, but it is basically a startup poised to innovate around transportation system in the capital city of Uganda.
The competitive advantage is in the detail
“Our very simple business model is centred around asking the question, how do we need to make it very convenient for people to get from point A to point B without having to buy a car or walk down the street to hail one?” Mark says.
One would assume Spe Taxi Cab would roll out its services using a technology that is very similar to Uber, but in reality, it is quite different. Perhaps even a little less attractive. But according to Mark, this is a necessary evil to ensure the originality of all of their operations. The model is built basically around three easy steps; you register (for first-time users), purchase your kilometres and then book a cab.
The idea of buying kilometres might appear very confusing at first, but it sticks eventually. It’s reminiscent of the situation with the telcos in Nigeria where agents buy data or airtime in large bundles and then proceed to sell in smaller units to customers. Only in this case, the customers are buying the big bundles by themselves; in kilometres.
After registration, customers buy a prepaid mileage (kilometer) which will automatically be credited to their Spe Taxi Cab account. The mileage would be deducted based on the kilometres traveled.
The need to carry cash around for fares is completely eliminated. The fact that customers would have to call the dedicated dispatch lines manually before their ride arrives gives Uber some competitive advantage.
Spe Taxi Cab’s offering becomes more attractive when you consider that Uber’s affinity with the app model means it can’t function without the internet. And the fact that internet is still somewhat of a luxury in Africa as a whole gives the Spe Taxi Cab’s model a realistic edge over Uber.
While Mark didn’t play down the value Uber has brought to the Ugandan transportation landscape in terms of creating excitement and awareness in the space as this has also helped them in coming into the spotlight.
As he stressed that Uber’s emergence within two months made it possible for Spe Taxi Cab to transit from a previous state of oblivion to general cognizance. In his words, “We have had more bookings since Uber arrived.”
So Uber may just want to be on the lookout for this trend, lest it becomes their undoing in the Ugandan capital.
If you wonder like me how Spe Taxi Cab came about their fleet of cars, then I should tell you about Special hire; which is the third public road transportation mediums in Uganda — after the boda-boda and mutatu.
Special hire comprises of taxi drivers — with mostly comfortable and somewhat luxury rides — that are in the taxi business. But Spe Taxi Cab is innovating around them by incorporating these “special hire” guys into the already existing system.
The transportation system in Uganda is somewhat in its 30 years of age. Apart from being around that long, the taxi driver’s understanding of the localities and neighborhood better than anyone else makes them perfect candidates for bringing Spe Taxi Cab’s vision to fruition. According to Mark “they are able to tell which routes are the safest and free from traffic congestion and at what time best.”
Once a customer makes a call to Spe Taxi Cab, the details of the ride will be given to the driver within close proximity to the customer and the revenue would be shared between Spe Taxi Cab and the driver.
Spe Taxi Cab’s adherence to a particular car standard, coupled with the fact that the entire operation has been bootstrapped from scratch, has played a part in what largely appears to be a small number of fleets at their disposal. Yet it would come quite surprising to learn that about three of the fleet of cars are core fleet; they belong to Mark and his partner.
“Our challenge is that the taxi cab industry here is about 30 years old and many of the local taxi operators in the market are still operating in the 30 years era. So they are not easily adapting to the changes or with the technology.” says Mark.
The immediate effect is that drivers aren’t only finding it very difficult to adapt the kilometer rate basis, they also revert to the old system.
I want to conclude that the entire idea works, I do however have a slight reservation concerning what appears to be too premium-like service targeted at a mixed populace of mostly low-income earners demographics.
But this brief by Mark sums it up
“So the people we are looking at are the people who are coming into the country as investors, people who are bringing their company to set up in Uganda, experts, expatriate, people who works for organisations, NGOs, diplomats who do not know the town very well and need direction on where to go and then busy middle class locals who probably want to get to meetings on time or do not want to drive through the traffic.”
The service isn’t entirely cheap obviously. I should mention that a certain amount of the revenue generated by the budding startup goes into charitable works, yet it doesn’t make up for the fact that majority of the people plagued by the transportation issues within the city have to pay through their noses to enjoy the service; something that may not augur well with the natives.
And unless Spe Taxi Cab makes urgent moves to quickly make the price flexible, matutus/kamunye and bado-bados will still remain relevant where the transportation landscape in Uganda is concerned. Unless the target market is the investors and expatriates that they presently ferry and I wonder if that is sustainable.
Outside of this, Spe Taxi Cab has gotten a lot of good reviews from critics and users alike, this has directly influenced word of mouth marketing for them.
And at the rate they are going, Spe Taxi Cab looks it is aiming to take a leap from an unprecedented model to becoming a strong force to reckon with in the near future.
Especially as they’re building by leveraging on the right partnerships and making good on mentorship programs like SpeedUP Africa for instance, where Mark claims Spe Taxi Cab was shown the light on how they could integrate new software technology to improve database and the existing platform in general.
So if you are planning to take a vacation or business trip to Uganda, Spe Taxi Cab will be around the corner ready to pick you up.
Ifeanyi is a desk reporter-turned administrator. Outside of work, I love to read and travel.