‘Recession is a time of opportunity’
Indeed, the disruptive impact of technology on the way the world is organised has never been more evident. But there is also a sense in which the entire process is helping to overcome barriers and speeding up the integration of peoples the world over.
One company at the cutting edge of this process is the global technology-based transportation services platform, Uber. And even as Africa is on the threshold of the full commencement of a novel borderless travel initiative that will see people from across the continent benefit from a new regime of visa-free borderless travel, The Difference has gone checking to see if the requisite infrastructure to underpin this ‘brave, new world’ is already in place.
Last week, Richard Mammah was at the Ikoyi, Lagos Office of Uber to speak with Ebi Atawodi who serves as General Manager, West Africa of the firm, on this and other developments and it was a quite revealing encounter. Excerpts:
For us it is interesting when we see businesses that work within West Africa and the broader African region. We want to interface and find what they are doing and how they are going about it. Our first question then is ‘how you are finding West Africa?’
I think West Africa is a very vibrant place; it has some very big key markets that are really some of the anchors in the continent. Right now we are in Nigeria and Ghana and these two are very big players on the international scale. We are specifically now in Abuja, Lagos and Accra. I think what is interesting is that West Africa presents a unique opportunity especially because we are trying to create this one state – you’ve got ECOWAS – which is interesting, to see how we can fluidly grow into the different countries and cities. It is overall a very exciting market, with very progressive governments, and also occupying a very interesting position in terms of technology. You have the smartphone penetration, mobile penetration, GSM penetration, the banking sector expansion; again you go from country to country in West Africa are you are meeting the same banks, the same players. It is a very interesting position to be in, to be having these rather homogenous and conversations across the different countries.
But we also have issues like the language factor, the Anglophone and the Francophone divide in that sense. Does this pose some kind of a problem?
It has not been an issue because we have teams that are very bilingual. The team that launched Accra, in fact their head of launch is natively Francophone from Switzerland. The launch is actually not of Ghana; it is actually African, but French speaking and I speak French also. So that is the beauty, I remember when I was in school in Nigeria – that was secondary school – I was taught basic French language. We are fortunate in a sense that we have a lot of French speaking markets already. We are in Switzerland, France, Morocco and Belgium among other French-speaking nations. In the same way that a Nigerian team is supported across the world we also have teams that are supporting our operations in those territories. The same team that can answer questions in Morocco or France can also do so in any of the other French-speaking states.
The beauty actually is that we are a truly global family, over 400 cities, 70 countries, quite a number of which are French-speaking.
Let me push the French language subject some more. There have been moves to restore the teaching of history in the Nigerian school system. Should French also be a somewhat compulsory subject given that we are almost completely encircled by French-speaking neighbours like Cameroun, Benin, Niger, and Chad?
I think the question I should ask here is that as we think of the future of Nigeria, do we want to set up in such a way that we can interact and trade with other countries that are French-speaking? And you know that in those other countries, in order to compete, they are also learning English. So if it would be an advantage – and if the answer to that question is yes – that we need to equip the young people of Nigeria to be able to have those conversations then I think we should go for it. As we all know that the potential of Africa is still largely untapped, and as we equally know, the real resource of the continent is its people.
The true resource that we have is the people. And the answer is that if we want to start to have a more connected African continent, then we need to consider whether the broader teaching of languages like Arabic, French and English are what we should be thinking about at the moment.
I for one do admire East Africa in the fact that almost across their entire spaces, they are able to speak and communicate in Swahili. And there also you have this fluidity within borders and so you have that connection.
In West Africa there is something like a fifty-fifty split between English and French but then we do have this gulf also. When I go to Benin Republic or Dakar I know the advantage in being able to speak French, even if not very fluently. And so we are supposedly brothers but we can hardly communicate. So if our speaking French would help fix this, I think that will be a beautiful thing.
It is not exactly the same thing as the question of teaching history because, yes, history is something that is very important to know. In order to know where you are going, it is important to know where you are coming from, but it is even more critical issue when talking about languages. I mean for the same reason that we teach Nigerians English – even to people in our villages – so that if they come into town they can be able to interact with others, so we also need to ask ourselves if there is some attraction for better dealing with our neighbours so that our learning French will help our communication with them when they come into town. And if the answer is yes, then so be it.
I almost got lost trying to find your office. Now, I take it that Uber is bracing for the full take-off of the AU All-Africa Common Passport initiative that came into effect in Kigali in August and which could be fully operational across the region in another two years. Given your place as a travel facilitator, what are you doing to tap into this vision and make intra-African cities commuting a more seamless experience?
I do not think that will pose any challenge at all. There are some interesting statistics already when you look at Lagos for example. Some 2million people come in and out of the Central Business District every day. In Accra, before we even set off, we had noticed that people from well over 60 nationalities were already looking up their phones to see whether the Uber app was up and running! It is the same story here in Nigeria as just before we launched we noticed that people from some 45 nationalities had opened up the application. That really tells you that we have a global audience that has the challenge of coming in and getting around the city that you spoke of. And we are not even restricted in language terms as we are in most of the global languages. In that case if your phone is already set to Chinese or French or Arabic or Japanese, the Uber app will automatically be in that language. So we are ready for this.
When I travel, for example when I go to the Netherlands, I do not have any difficulty using the Uber app there even when I do not speak a word of Dutch. This is because the app functions in the language in which my phone is already programmed in, which is English. And this applies everywhere, so we are really ready for the new development in Africa.
Indeed, that is actually going to be an exciting time when we have this ease of moving around, intra-country and inter-country.
One reason for example why there is a lot of trade between Lagos and Accra at the moment is because you can freely move around. There are lots of flights every day and it takes just 45 minutes to get across. And you can actually get across multiple countries to and fro. When there are channels for people to get around and when that channel is open people will use it. And when they get into the airport, they will need to get around the city. They do not really need to go buy a car to get around the city. And so when they are in the city, there would be reliance on public transportation or platforms like Uber. So that is really going to be an exciting time when we start circling and trading with ourselves as a continent.
You were not ready for the Nigerian recession? Is it a challenge for Uber?
Was anybody ready for the recession? (laughing) Well, actually, if we are now officially calling it a recession… good to know.
Recessions are times of opportunity. Let me explain. If I needed to buy a car in December and I need to import because we are an import-dependant country. And I am buying it from one of the resellers here; whoever bought it would have had to bring it into the country, and also bring the parts into the country and those parts at that time would have had to be acquired at say N200 to the dollar, right? So if I had to take from my salary to go and buy the car, I would have had to budget buying based on my salary at a rate of N200 to the dollar. But now, depending on where you are getting the car from, that dollar to naira rate may have doubled, right?
And so getting the car now will require more than double of the portion I would have taken out of my salary. So what that means is that this is a time for platforms like us and government to get together to create the kind of opportunities for people to continue to get around in spite of these adjustments. So if we can get more efficient, if we can reduce traffic time, all of these initiatives will basically still get into the system. This is a time when car prices are up, petrol prices are up, maintenance is up and people still have to get around, to go to work, to get home and all that. So now is the time for platforms like Uber and government to give to citizens more efficient ways of getting around. So I see it as an opportunity. You do not build when things are great, you build when things are down and broken against a time when they will be great. So I think this is a time when people who are looking at Nigeria, internally and externally, to tap into those opportunities and those who are prepared are those that will benefit from it down the line as opposed to those who only come when the going is great. So I really believe that when things are down the only place it could go is up. So this is the time to build and reinforce your systems, to build things that people can use when the good days come.
Uber was not in Nigeria in its first three years of its existence? Why is this so? Was Nigeria not attractive enough then?
No, Nigeria was attractive but Rome was not built in a day. You have to learn. We launched in San Francisco and later in Paris where our two founders were, before London and Johannesburg and Cape Town. We are the first market outside of South Africa. When I joined Uber some three years now, the business was in 200 cities. So it took three years to get to 200 cities but by the end of last year we had almost crossed 400 cities. As a matter of fact, Abuja was the 400th city. So it took us about half the time to get to 400 cities that it had taken to cover the first 200 cities. And from 400 we are now getting to 500 in almost just another six months. So in the same way we got to a billion trips towards the end of last year and six months later we celebrated two billion trips. So what took us five years to get to one billion trips in six months we have added another billion in six months. And that’s just the way business is. You start; one step at a time and then you witness this exponential growth.
Lagos is certainly a most important market for us. It is easily the largest city in the continent outside of, say Cairo. Lagos in itself is almost like a country. The GDP of Lagos is bigger than that of Ghana, it’s bigger than Kenya, it is a market that we are determined to grow and it has also created a playbook for us to take elsewhere. There are so many things we have learnt from Lagos that we have been able to take to Accra, to Abuja, to Nairobi. And some of those things we also learnt there have also been able to come back to Lagos, so it’s a very nice ecosystem.
Lagos is rewarding in a business sense?
Absolutely. For any business, a major city is rewarding. You invest a lot in penetrating the market and then the rewards come. So it is rewarding.
What will you say to someone who says: ‘Uber you are disrupting our lives, you are introducing all of these strange technologies, talking of driverless cars and already testing them, and there seem to even be more disruptions coming.’ What will you say to that person?
What I will say is ‘let me walk you through how these developments can be rewarding in your life.’ Over 40 per cent of the people that are on the Uber platform today are from the existing traditional transport ecosystem, former taxi drivers that come to join the platform. As long as you have a car that qualifies with brake-lights working, air-conditioning working, a smartphone, and you go through and pass the screening process, you can join the platform. It’s an open platform and sometimes we see people and ask ‘how can we help you’ and they say, ‘yeah, I cannot afford a smartphone’ and we help them through a partnership with smartphone retailers. In Ghana for example you walk in and you come in with just your car and we will set up a bank account for you because the bank is ready to give you an account and set up a microfinance package for you and you can pay instalmentally for your smartphone. So it’s a one-stop shop for getting on the road and driving, and making money. And the pay efficiency that the platform brings also gives you flexibility in how you work. You can work two hours a day, it’s up to you. That is all the power in your hand. You see, technology will always come in to simplify, make things more efficient. That is how it works. There was a time when there were only just about 450,000 citizens in Nigeria that had mobile phones, 0-9-0, but today you have almost one phone for every citizen. And ultimately, they have also become cheaper and more accessible. That is the advantage of technology.
On the driverless cars, we are still years away from when they would become really ubiquitous because there are still several steps that have to be taken to get there. Here in Lagos for example, we still have preliminary issues with mapping and infrastructure. For example, there are two Number 2, Turnbull Street addresses. But all the same it is good that these things are being worked on. Kudos, for example, to the Lagos State Government for the construction of the Blue Line that will ease traffic into the metropolis. You can imagine that it will be easier and faster coming from Badagry into the Central Business District after it has been completed. So I will say there are a lot of systems that have to be in place before we get there and I will say let us focus on the incremental stages. But ultimately, Uber is an open platform and I see hundreds of thousands of cars joining the platform. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding and someone says, ‘I can’t join the platform,’ and I ask, ‘why can’t you join,’ and he says ‘I thought my car would not qualify,’ and I say ‘No, your car is fine, come join.’ Or I do not have a smartphone or I have not used a smartphone before, and it is my job to say, ‘do not worry, we can get you a smartphone or teach you to use one’
To be continued