Uber Everywhere

There was a time when getting into an unmarked taxi in Dar es Salaam was unthinkable. That journey could easily lead to an express kidnapping—armed men piling into your car and whisking you off into the city, promising that you could keep your phone and laptop and valuables, provided you coughed up your ATM card and PIN. After many stops at banks around the city, withdrawing the limit of Tsh 400,000 each time, you’d be dropped somewhere on the outskirts of town, warned against talking to the police, then given cab fare home—after all, these men aren’t animals, they’d explain.

Nowadays, such threats still exist, but Tanzanians and expats alike are jumping into unmarked cars with quite a bit more abandon: Uber has arrived in Dar es Salaam. With the proliferation of cheap smartphones, it’s easy for just about anyone to dial up a car, and prices are surprisingly good. The 5,000 shilling trip between Upanga and Kisutu neighborhoods has been reduced to 3,000 shillings, the minimum fare. From City Center out to Oyster Bay, where many NGO offices are located, the price has dropped from a hard-bargained 8,000 shillings to only 3-4k. It’s remarkable. The seemingly universal lowering of prices by almost half is a windfall, but there are untold benefits in taking negotiation out of the process. Fares are calculated by some mystic formula of distance and time, and they are immutable. No more standing outside, politely (or not so politely) arguing with a driver over what it costs to go where. I can’t imagine the amount of shillings I’ve thrown away simply by not having the patience to haggle an insistent driver down a few bucks.

There are, however, issue to be resolved. Many drivers haven’t opted in to Uber, preferring the traditional approach of waiting by their cars at taxi stands, entreating passers-by with calls of “teksi, teksi” in a reversal of the classic movie trope of passengers hailing drivers from the sidewalk. It’s hard to say how much of a day is spent lounging and chatting versus driving in this model, but quite a few drivers seem content to wait as long as it takes, hoping for that one big fare, instead of plying the streets for multiple, smaller fares. Of the Uber drivers I’ve talked to, they seem to be getting more passengers. Like, way more passengers. Prices are allegedly subsidized by Uber at this point, so it remains to be seen if they’ll stay low, but those drivers who have made the switch are generally content doing more business at smaller prices and still coming out ahead.

The improvements of private cars over taxis are present with Uber in Dar es Salaam, just as in America—drivers are rated by customers and held to a strict standard, while taxi drivers have much less oversight and much less personal stake in making your trip and extra pleasant one. There are, naturally, still issues to work out. It’s quite common for taxi drivers to keep as little gas in their car as they can, especially if cash is tight, and hit up their customers mid-trip for their fare as they pull into a filling station. With Uber’s ability to pay by card, a completely foreign concept in Tanzanian taxis, drivers aren’t sure what they’ll be getting from their fare. On the way to a movie earlier this week, the driver and I sweated it out, seeing whether or not we’d make it to the mall through late-night congestion. He asked for cash for gas, but I had opted to pay by card, and he wasn’t thrilled when I rejected his offer of a free ride some other time for cash at the moment. We made it, but he was later unimpressed with the rating I gave him for the sketchy service and called me demanding an explanation.

For the most part, drivers are understanding, appreciating that they can keep the meter running: want to pick up a friend? No problem. Want to go past the destination you input when requesting the ride? Let’s go. Sometimes there are issues: it isn’t necessary to specify a destination when hailing a ride, and last night a driver expressed his disappointment when I told him my address in the car, realizing it was minimum charge ride. I wanted to explain he didn’t have to accept the open-ended call if he wasn’t gonna be happy about it, but thought better of it. I think better of it a lot in situations like that.

Overall, I’m super impressed. It’s easy, it’s fairly quick and reliable, and I’ve had some great rides. My driver the other day was a university student earning extra money on the side—he had lived in Nairobi for his primary education, and we compared linguistic notes on Kenyan and Tanzanian Swahili. It was a blast. I’m excited to see who else is out there driving. I’m not too worried about getting robbed, even though I’m hopping into unmarked cars. I always check to match the license plate, though—just in case.

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