Recently, Taxify launched in Owerri, Imo State. This made Imo State the first foothold of this new technology in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria.
It is quite unclear why the e-hailing company decided to leave its comfort zones -- Lagos and Abuja -- and take a bet on Imo State.
The fourth edition of the annual Startup South conference in Imo State showed that technology and the Internet are taking a foothold in the state, howbeit slowly.
Maybe this is the attraction for e-hailing platforms in the state.
Platforms, because apparently, Taxify is not the first or only e-hailing player in the state; there is Dorel and Uru, and they both have an equally strong user base.
During Startup South 2018 in Owerri, it was quite an experience using the 3 services.
At the park, cab drivers had different options; book personally, or through any of the e-hailing platforms. For experiential purposes I chose the latter.
An earlier post had outlined why e-hailing services may not be feasible outside Lagos and Abuja.
From the situation on ground and drivers, I proceeded to find out how true this is.
Is the recent wave of online taxi services in Owerri -- and South East Nigeria -- a fad or here to stay?
The drivers were quite patient for me to download the 18MB Dorel Passenger app and request their services.
The Dorel app and logo is fine, maybe not exactly overtly aesthetically pleasing but just a rude shock from the usual Taxify and Uber colours.
After downloading the app, it asks for regular signup details, sends a one-time password (OTP) to my phone for verification and blah blah; all the other registration stuff.
One interesting thing was the ride estimate from the Port Harcourt road to Macy View was ₦849($2.3), and ended up being the exact amount at the end of the ride. Dorel charges passengers fixed amounts.
In Taxify and Uber, there is always a price range that is dependent on factors like increased time and traffic congestion. But with Dorel, what you see is what you get.
I wonder if it’s because there are no traffic jams in the city, unlike Lagos and Abuja, our driver James (not real name) assures me this is not the case.
“Even though it’s not usually as heavy as these 2 cities you mentioned, there is usually traffic here sometimes. That’s just how the service works.”
The fact that we made a -- not so -- quick stop at an ATM confirmed my suspicion that Dorel was charging a flat fee.
This is a good thing for the riders who know cost upfront and prevents surprises. But how does this play out for the drivers?
James says he is generally indifferent.
The Dorel app also has strong points; an SOS button, ability for passengers to cancel rides, and a payment authentication system that lets the driver confirm payment receipt via an OTP.
A quick Google search reveals Uru first launched in Ghana in April 2017 and then came to Nigeria in February 2018, making Owerri it’s first city in the country.
In a telephone conversation, a spokesperson of the company said the founder of Uru, Peters Ben is an indigene of Imo State.
In her words, “Launching in the state was a way of easing up transportation and logistics for indigenes.”
After downloading the Uru app, registration and signup processes were the same as others; OTP, basic information and the works.
After a first rider turned down my ride request on account of distance, Jerry (not real names), picked me up.
“I am between jobs and I just got on Uru one week ago. And so far I think the experience is not bad,” Jerry said.
My Taxify experience in Owerri was quite similar to both Lagos and Abuja, except that cars were a lot cleaner and drivers more polite.
My driver Onyeka showed up 30 minutes late after being delayed at a police checkpoint that detained him on the way.
“Some of us have to stay on the different apps. I like Taxify but I have to get on them all and also run personal trips to make enough money.”
Like churches are to Lagos, Owerri there is a high concentration of higher institutions and hundreds of hotels. There is literally one in every corner; some streets have hotels lining them on both sides without any residential buildings.
James said the tertiary institutions and thriving hospitality industry means there will always be people without cars looking to arrive in style.
“Most people prefer these ones to regular taxis because of safety and the companies track details and drivers,” he says.
According to Google, there were 1.4 million people living in Owerri as at 2016, but James thinks this number is still not enough.
“Honestly, there are still not enough customers. Between those that cannot afford it and those that are not enlightened enough to use it, there is a wide gap of patronage that we do not get.”
On a very good day, James does an average of 5 rides on Dorel and 5 personally. Strangely, Jerry and Onyeka quoted the same figure.
“Airport runs are the only way to make any decent money in a day,” James says confirming my earlier theory.
Rides to the airport are insanely expensive as if to make up for the other small charges.
“But of course for logistic reason, you cannot always stay in the airport or that route,” Jerry concludes.
To stay in business, some of the drivers on these platforms resort to giving phone numbers to customers.
Passengers call them and book a ride when they get to the location. This is convenient for the passenger, but drivers say they have to waste fuel and time getting to these passengers who sometimes end up not wanting the rides.
“There are not enough cars on these platforms so that’s the only way some of them can find a ride and we can find passengers.”
There is another kink on the passenger side.
Both James and Jerry agree that enlightenment seem to be one of the biggest problems for adoption of e-hailing services in the state.
They both said a large number of customers could afford the services but would not do it because they either did not know it exists or are just not sure whether to trust it at all.
Mapping seems to be the greatest challenge for these services in the state; Google Maps for Owerri is not properly done up.
A lot of users complained bitterly of occasional exorbitant charges resulting from mapping anomalies.
Jeremy took a Taxify ride and was initially charged ₦19,000 ($52.34) from Westbrook Hotel in New Owerri to Oguta Lake, a 44.4km journey, because the map kept missing the way.
The price was eventually reviewed downwards to ₦9,000($24.75), but this is largely representative of this mapping-related challenge.
As Owerri -- and the South-East -- is coming into a larger technological and internet awareness, the market is getting bigger for e-hailing and ridesharing services.
But unless e-hailing platforms do groundwork and smoothen these creases, the market will be a long-term play with an insane burn rate at best and waste of time and money at worst.