We suspected that Uber, the mobile app which allows you to summon a limo to your door for the same price as a regular cab, was coming to South Africa. But our journo senses almost failed us when we discovered the firm was already operating here with little to no fanfare to herald its arrival. And while anything that makes it easier to get around our terrifically congested cities or takes a few drunk drivers off the road is welcome, there is a concern that Uber will use its muscle and overseas bank accounts to smother an area where South Africans are starting to innovate.
But we know nothing about the private cab industry. Possibly less than nothing. So we asked someone who know. Matthew Aberdein is product manager at Zapacab. Zapacab allows you to summon a driver from one of four local companies who work with the developer. That’s around 100 drivers contactable from the screen of your smartphone – and its still technically in beta. Currently, the service only covers Cape Town, but Aberdein says they are looking to expand in to Johannesburg soon. It’s received rave reviews from customers, drivers and critics alike, but is it ready for the challenge of Uber?
“We are ready for them,” Aberdein says, “Competition is a good validation of a market. It will be interesting to see how their American systems work in African cities. We really pride ourselves on being a local company focusing on the details that make these cities unique. When we enter Johannesburg, we intend to start with the lessons we are learning in Cape Town. We leave passengers to choose where their loyalty lies.”
One of the big challenges that Uber will face is that the taxi and private hire industry here is both very different to the US and European understanding of what cabs are and what they do – and it’s also highly resistant to change. When the tuk-tuk services launched to ferry business passengers from Gautrain stations to meetings in Sandton, there were reports of attacks on drivers by minibus operators. Many metered cab drivers have experienced the same thing. Modernisation is happening, though.
“Cab companies are definitely one of the sectors who are resistant to change,” says Aberdein, “But we have been pleasantly surprised in this regard. I feel they understand that the times are changing and this level of service is to be expected. The companies that have signed up have done so because they believe that this is the future.”
Video above: A testimonial from Zapacab-affiliated driver Michael
That doesn’t mean that Uber can afford to be cavalier about the way it goes about marketing itself.
“With innovations like these it is essential that the entrepreneurs are sensitive to the existing drivers,” says Aberdein, “There are people’s jobs at stake. Again it comes back to implementing a system that works here.”
And if both companies end up offering similar services, we wondered, will being ‘Proudly South African’ give Zapacab the edge?
“Hell yeah,” Aberdein says, “Buy local! We can offer everything they can and are more flexibility for local needs. We are also are a lot more focused on just optimising the pre-existing cabs. Giving them a tech solution to provide a high level of service to passengers you up the quality a lot without having to add additional cars to the roads. If anyone wants to give us input as to how we can serve them even better just mail us or tweet at us.”
Right now the two firms operate in different cities, but they’ll be converging before long. It’s international muscle versus home grown talent: let’s hope the winner is the body of customers desperate to give up their cars and still get around our urban streets in safety.