General Manager, Sub- Saharan Africa, Uber.
Alon Lits has always had a passion for cities, transportation and technologies. He believes Uber represents the most important innovation in public transportation, a feat he asserts has earned the technology company a leadership place in the movement of collaborative consumption – an area in which it’s having a substantial economic and environmental impact.
Uber’s mission is to help people get a ride at the push of a button – everywhere and for everyone. We started in 2009 to solve a simple problem – how do you get a ride at the touch of a button? With over 10 billion trips later, we’ve started tackling an even greater challenge: reducing congestion and pollution in our cities by getting more people into fewer cars.
Uber is available in sixteen cities in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cape Town, Durban, Joburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, East London, Nairobi, Mombasa, Lagos, Abuja, Benin City, Abidjan Kampala, Accra, Kumasi and Dar es Salaam). Overall, the Uber network is available in over 600 cities in over 65 countries.
In this interview, he answers questions about the future of urban mobility and the car ride sharing market.
Some think that Uber’s disruption of the taxi industry has essentially been the disruption of a private industry by another private industry. What’s your take on this?
The information age has resulted in a significant change in technology that has, in turn, brought about a massive disruption in the traditional understanding of what it means to “do business.” Today, the world’s most successful businesses are not the largest or most established organisations. They’re not even the ones that have come up with the most creative new products or services. Uber is a prime example of this entrepreneurial evolution. While we do not employ any driver, as they are independent contractors, we offer the platform for them to use their vehicles to take trips to earn an additional income.
We are not a taxi or transportation company. The Uber app is an additional platform to supplement the existing transportation networks already available, and to offer locals another way to travel around their city. Uber is an open and non exclusive application service, working with existing operators. We understand choice, and encourage individuals to use a network best suited for their needs, be it taking a trip via an Uber, using a taxi/ metro or simply walking. We do not feel that it needs to be Uber or other networks, but Uber and other networks.
For your kind of unique service, what have you learned about the African market since you opened here? How soon do you expect local competition to enter the market?
Africa is no doubt one of the most exciting markets we currently operate in, with a rich culture, rapid infrastructural development, and burgeoning entrepreneurship. The continent provides a unique sense of innovation given it is still developing. Innovation does not always have to equate to technology, and we have developed iterations of the app innovations without technology. Uber Eats in Kenya enables for delivery to be made with rollerblades and skateboards, while in South Africa, delivery in the largest township on the continent, Soweto, can be made via a bicycle. This highlights the need for the app to fit into the construct of Africa to be usable for locals.
Aside from just this, we have also localised our product offerings in various African cities to better suit the need of riders and drivers. UberPOA (Tuk Tuks) is available in Mombasa, while UberCHAPCHAP and UberBODA (motorcycles) are available in Nairobi with the latter also available in Dar es Salaam.
With the introduction of Uber in Africa, it has also redeveloped the typical work day and its environment, by introducing the Gig Economy, which now allows individuals to work from anywhere, at any time in the world with currently owned assets such as a motor vehicle. This flexibility has allowed locals to control their earning opportunity and is one of the many reasons that the ‘gig’ economy has been so broadly embraced by Africa from all walks of life.
We do not focus on competitors but rather spend our time thinking about how we can better the experience for riders and drivers both in Africa and globally. However, Uber loves competition as it offers more choice to customers, improves safety and service, and encourages innovation. We believe our customers should be allowed more choice in the way they travel, with said choice being affordable. Our focus is on reliability, flexibility, convenience and opportunity.
What are the benefits for drivers to join Uber rather than stay with Africa’s cab system?
Drivers choose to use the Uber app for the flexibility and control they have in their daily schedule and subsequent earnings. We even have seen some drivers who own their own transportation companies and use the Uber app to connect their drivers with riders.
Aside from this, Uber already offers multiple benefits to drivers and delivery drivers alike, with the introduction of Injury Protection, rewards and multiple safety features, which include an in-app emergency button, Speed Alerts and 24/7 customer support. Drivers are also able to visit any Green Light Hub for face-to-face assistance on any query that they may have. All benefits create a better environment and highlights the app’s commitment to drivers and delivery drivers, that normally isn’t seen within the Gig Economy and other players in the industry.
Have the regulations in Sub Saharan Africa been in Uber’s favor?
Uber is pro-regulation and since our launch in Sub Saharan Africa in 2013 (South Africa), we have been actively working with regulators to help shape the future of ride-sharing across the entire region. Uber remains a significant net contributor to the local economy and we comply with all applicable tax laws in all countries of operation. Uber is creating new economic opportunities for thousands of people in each city where we operate and encourages more efficient use of existing public transportation infrastructures. We invest heavily into supporting drivers in their businesses through partnerships, ongoing technological innovation as well as providing incentives and guarantees and provided physical presences in the form of Greenlight Hubs, which are support centres specifically for drivers.
We will continue to work with various stakeholders across Sub Saharan Africa to ensure that we address some of the region’s most pressing challenges like urban mobility and transportation.
How do you measure the quality of your client service?
We’re always thinking about ways to improve the rider and driver experience and ensure a seamless experience from trip request to completion. There are a variety of app features that can be used to make any trip as stress-free as possible. Trips are live GPS-tracked from beginning to end, and with the Safety Toolkit, riders are able to share their trip status with up to five loved ones who are able to track this in real time. Our app encourages traceability and transparency which has never been possible before Uber.
We aim to develop mutual respect for both riders and drivers, who are expected to at all times follow our community guidelines when using the app, while both parties are able to provide feedback to the app on any issues experienced both during and after a trip. We encourage both drivers and riders to maintain a 5 star rating. With the feedback feature riders are able to rate their driver and give feedback on the trip, driver etiquette,incorrect fare, cleanliness of the vehicle and anything in general that they might want to report back on. It is important to note that the Uber partner – driver can also rate rider to ensure that no rider disrespects a driver while on a trip. Riders receive consistently negative feedback and may be suspended from the app if no improvement is made.
We have a dedicated 24/7 in-app customer support team who have a day, seven days of the week to constantly monitor all feedback and take action in real time if necessary. Customers also have access to an Safety Response Team (IRT) call-back line for safety related matters. Both of our IRT and LERT (police liaison) teams work with various stakeholders to ensure that any issue is quickly and effectively resolved.
Uber now offers helicopters in some countries, how soon will we see this in Africa?
This was a one-off on-demand campaign in South Africa, Kenya, UAE and France. While we have no current plans of launching an UberCHOPPER option anywhere else in Africa, we have successfully launched various localised products unique to their subsequent market.
For instance, uberBODA and uberPOA is an addition to Uber’s range of products to cater for East Africa’s unique travel needs. Both options deliver phenomenal fuel efficiency, especially when you compare their fuel usage and range per tank with those of cars. With lower vehicle costs, the fares on uberBODA and uberPOA can be lowered to the benefit of consumers, without the reduction in fares harming the driver’s take-home earnings.
We also tested UberBOAT in Lagos for a period of two weeks only, through a pilot service focused on getting locals from A to B on popular water-based transportation routes, and created positive conversation around alternative methods of getting around the city more effectively.
Could the Uber model end car ownership?
Every city wants a less-congested network of transport that’s safer on the environment and still allows locals to move at ease. Uber wants to partner with these cities to create a system that is affordable to individuals, while reducing private car ownership due to its reliability and convenience. There is a convergence towards the development of smart cities, which will actively look at using technology like Uber, to assist in such objectives.
Using the Uber app has already become a normative mode of transport for many, who use it to fit their unique lifestyle, be it for a responsible night out or not having the hassle of parking at the airport. We see the future less about car ownership and more about car-sharing as smart cities look for smarter solutions to increase mobility while reducing pollution, infrastructure costs and environmental impacts.
What’s your ambition for Uber and where the business is now in Africa, compared to where you’d like it to be?
Uber’s ambition is to be everywhere – any progressive, forward-thinking city that has a need for safe, reliable and efficient transportation, we want to be there. We are part of a broader mobility movement, establishing smart cities of the future and we are constantly exploring our options of where to go next.
We can reflect on the fact that our business model and our decision to invest in the Africa region helped play a positive role in the continued upward trajectory of the region. Above all, we have created new forms of economic opportunities with driver-partners, and opening up the convenience of e-hailing services to a young, tech-savvy continent ready to embrace technological solutions to the region’s problems and the demands of the fourth industrial revolution.
Some major successes brought in by Uber in Sub Saharan Africa was the launch of the app’s first Francophone country, Ivory Coast, while also introducing the app’s light version, Uber Lite, which serves as a Lite version of the Uber app (less memory required and works in low-connectivity areas), and works specifically well in regions where data and technology continue to develop.
We continue to celebrate and invest in African cities, based on the premise of continuous innovation with culture and collaboration from both local and international liaisons. This collaboration has allowed for the development of bespoke, localised solutions, to promote African communities that continue to advance, as we expand into new regions . In Kenya, those without access to a smartphone or an internet connection are still able to request a trip without the app, by dialing the toll free number 0800 722 000. UberASSIST is able to accommodate riders with wheelchairs, available in both Kenya and South Africa. It is a part of the continued effort to broaden access onto the Uber platform.
Why do you think Uber is now at a point where it has a strong sense of what it takes to build a successful business in Africa?
When looking at how a unique market as Africa is, to the impacts it has had on the overall global business, we have uncovered the need and importance of localisation where we simply think global and act local. It became clear that a one-size-fits-all approach would never work in Africa. In order to succeed, we needed to take a global product and localize it to meet the needs of the local population. This includes everything from payment methods and trip selections and options, to how we market our product.
We have six years of experience in the Sub Saharan African market, and in this time, we have learnt to listen, with one ear always on the ground, as well as research into and use the app’s large data-mines to refine key insights used to adequately adapt to local markets.
We are not a virtual operation, we employ a local operations team and provide economic opportunities for partners in the local economy. Based on this we have the local knowledge and are able to provide a product that fits.
We are proud of how our presence has helped to impact Africa’s economic and social contours. We are excited about the opportunities for further growth across the SSA region, as we look to invest in new cities, new products and new countries. We aspire to be ‘change-makers’ and this is just the beginning of an important shift in how we move around our cities.