Taxi operators’ dilemma: Innovate or die

February 2, 2016
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Uber Technologies, an American based company has caused a stir not only in the Kenyan market but in many nations, with conventional taxi drivers now fighting for survival/FILE
Uber Technologies, an American based company has caused a stir not only in the Kenyan market but in many nations, with conventional taxi drivers now fighting for survival/FILE

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 2 – Do you remember the first mobile phone you ever owned; that is if you were an adult in the late 90s and at the beginning of the millennium?

I got to think about this on Tuesday morning when one of my colleagues sent a picture on a WhatsApp group with some of the feature phones that were in the Kenyan market at the turn of the millennium. I remember in the year 2000, my dad owned ‘a phone booth’, the street name for the then metallic blue Motorola, M3888.

These feature phones, which were then luxurious, made the once depended telephone booths useless and eventually removed from the streets.

The fast growth in mobile innovation led to companies like Motorola and Nokia being bought out, again, when smart phones set in. BlackBerry, which enjoyed a number of years top of the charts, was also not spared eventually.

And just like how the mobile market has evolved, amongst other sectors, could the Taxi business be heading the same direction?

Uber Technologies, an American based company has caused a stir not only in the Kenyan market but in many nations, with conventional taxi drivers now fighting for survival.

But what is Uber all about? About two months ago, my twin sister started harping about ‘Uber’. I mean, she literally ‘forced’ me to sign up with the mobile app and forget about ‘my cab guy’.

Then one evening, unable to find a cab, I downloaded it and was instantly hooked. Apart from convenience, it is cheaper and efficient and this is the tough competitive edge that has not augured well with the usual cab drivers.

However speaking to Capital FM Business, Innovation and Commercialization Manager at Diageo, Senorine Wasike is of the view that Uber is still on the winning end because at the moment, it’s the consumers dictating.

“The current reaction is expected, simply because it’s a change in the way we do things. The concerns raised are not unique to Kenya but have been raised in all other markets where Uber launched, both in Africa, Europe and Asia (India). Technology by its nature is disruptive,” she explains.

On Monday, the Kenya Taxi Cab Association demanded withdrawal of operations by Uber from Nairobi until a level playing field is established. The taxi drivers complained that Uber is not compliant with requirements imposed by the County and the National Government.

And will Uber Taxi operation survive in the current hostility? I pose the question to Wasike.

“All innovations face hostility. How people quickly adopt is normally just a matter of the timing. When the timing is right, innovation is unstoppable. Given the technological developments, Uber is within the space of proper timing. So in essence, good innovations should not die because there is a need for it,” she says.

She argues that, just like Mpesa, there were initial trust issue with the product. Banks also fought back and claimed Safaricom is a telecom company, not a financial institution. But at the moment, they are among the beneficiaries, through various products to customers.

Just like Uber, Netflix, another American company involved in online media streaming, is also facing hostility in Kenya with the Kenya Film Classifications Board arguing that its content is harmful and should be regulated. All eyes are on the board to see how it is going to implement this and if Netflix will still survive if this does not happen.

Other sectors affected by technology include the media industry in Kenya which recently saw media owners lose their court battles on television digital migration.

Despite these changes Wasike says technology will continue to evolve and most innovation is technology driven hence the need for all and companies to be more proactive and not wait to fight change when it comes.

“Innovate or die,” she says.

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