Public transportation in Kampala, does Uber stand a chance?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard quite a bit about Uber by now. The app-based ridesharing service recently launched in Kampala, and like in other cities, it is here to disrupt the transportation system which causes panic among some people obviously.

If you live in Kampala or have been to, then you will ask yourself if Uber does really stand a chance to survive against the crazies that the city has to offer. First things first, let’s get to know Uber better.

How it works

Uber operates through a smartphone app or web browser, allowing users to request a ride and track its progress in real time. Both rider and driver can see each other’s picture and profile on the app. The app then uses GPS to guide the driver to the rider, and on to the rider’s destination.

Uber calculates the estimated fare ahead of time and transfers the money electronically or cash payment can be made to the Uber driver. Uber is ideally cheaper than a comparable ‘special hire’ ride, since it cuts out a lot of the overhead costs that come with running a fully-licensed and regulated taxi service.

Meet Kampala

Boda Bodas, Taxis, ‘Special Hires’ and occasionally bicycle taxis (yes, bicycle taxis) are the main forms of public transportation in Kampala currently.

Taxis and Boda Bodas are the main means of transport in Kampala. Credit: roadsafetyinitiative.wix.com
Taxis and Boda Bodas are the main means of transport in Kampala. Credit: roadsafetyinitiative.wix.com

Special hires come closest to Uber and is preferred by people who want more privacy and convenience during their travel. However, their costs is a big turn off for many people.  Which brings us to boda bodas, the only thing that define the streets of Kampala. Boda boda – motorbike taxis have thrived due to the continued growth of traffic with passengers searching for alternative means to beat the heavy jam.

They are also a leading cause of road accidents.  According to the Injury Control Centre, there are up to 20 boda-related cases at Mulago National Referral hospital every day. Riders also risk being assaulted by criminals, especially at night by thugs who pose as passengers.

The boda boda industry in Uganda has also received a fair amount of disruption; Safeboda – dubbed ‘Uber for motorbikes’ provides an app that allows you to hail a boda boda – just like Uber.

Needless to mention the crazy crazy Kampala jam in the morning and evening hours, (and after it RAINS!!). The very bad road conditions, coupled with poor drainage systems and the ever increasing urban population summarize the state of public road transportation in Kampala.

Safeboda allows for mobile hailing, is cheap and provides safety helmets. Credit: SafeBoda (Twitter)
Safeboda allows for mobile hailing, is cheap and provides safety helmets. Credit: SafeBoda (Twitter)

Existing local solutions

Spe Cabs and Transprt.Me are local solutions similar solutions to Uber although their adoption and usage has not been up to speed among Ugandans. These local solutions should be able to leverage on what Uber doesn’t know about the local industry and gain an upper hand.

Internet access and penetration in Uganda

UCC reports that Internet penetration in Uganda stood at 37.4% of the population with total Mobile internet subscriptions growing to 6,463,479 in Q3 2015 from 6,057,148 subscribers in Q2 2015 representing a 0.07% growth in number of subscriptions. (entire report here)

If that can give you an idea of the number of smartphone users and active internet users in Kampala alone, then you can see that Uber is targeting a very small part of the population.

GPS and navigation

Navigation is the most important aspect of the business to Uber. They have to figure out how to get to the pickup point and deliver the rider(s) in the quickest route possible. Many early users in Kampala have already complained about this and I had my share as well; I was in Bukoto St. in Kamwokya and the map marker was pointing at Bukoto Road in Bukoto – towards Ntinda.

Although Uber is aware of this and have provided turn-by-turn directions in the app for the drivers once the trip begins, many of the drivers will need more training on how to use this and the riders too, well some of them.

Payment methods

Traditionally, Uber’s preferred method of accepting payment is VISA which comes with its advantages. Problem is VISA cards is not popular among Ugandan users as we prefer cash payments and now, Mobile Money. Uber has however made cash payments acceptable as is in Nairobi.

Safety and security

Online resource, Who’s Driving You compiles a comprehensive list of all Uber related crimes and safety issues in all cities the service is live in. And it says the biggest crimes are murders, sexual assaults, kidnappings, felonies and imposters.

Coupled with Kampala’s high population density and high crime rates, we only hope Uber won’t become an arena for escalating the criminal activities.

Maybe its too early to tell, but Uber has survived and is making profits in many cities people never thought it would last a year in. Some cities where the public transportation network could even be graded worse than Kampala’s like Mumbai and Jakarta. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Credit to ongoing discussions at #256_io on Telegram.


Jeddy Genrwot

Jeddy "The Jedi" is a budding professional with extensive conceptual knowledge in Web Development technologies and Computer Systems. "In like" with the Internet Startup space and cloud computing. A passionate gamer and social media enthusiast.
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