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Horrors of Kenyan women who ride in app-based taxis

Sunday October 14 2018
uber-pic

This hand-out photo showing a smartphone displaying taxi-hailing app. Many women in Nairobi have reported being attacked by drivers. PHOTO | AFP

By JACQUELINE KUBANIA

In the TV show Can’t Cope Won’t Cope, which airs on Netflix, the main characters Aisling and Danielle have a heart-warming relationship with a man they call Taxi Good.

Taxi Good is a cab driver and the first person Aisling and Danielle call when they need a ride.

The two women drink a lot, have sex in questionable places and people and go on escapades in the middle of the night.

However, Taxi Good does not judge them. He always picks them up from clubs and gets them home safely.

Taxi Good is kind, reliable and honest. He listens to the two women’s tortured stories while offering them tissues to cry into.

TRAUMATISING

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Unfortunately, Taxi Good becomes one more casualty of technology. As the season ends, he tells Aisling that he would be leaving the business because he has been priced out by cab hailing apps.

One is left wondering if Aisling and Danielle will ever find an app that offers the kind of safety and decency they had with Taxi Good. They won’t if the stories women are telling are anything to go by.

The app-based taxi hailing business has been praised as an efficient and affordable option.

Kenyan riders, however, especially women, still encounter problems. And now they have to deal with the added risk of violence.

Take the case of Jane, who shied away from using her name because a traumatising experience with a driver. She is afraid he might trace her.

SPED OFF

On the eve of Moi Day around 11.30pm, Jane used popular app Taxify to hail a cab. She was at a petrol station with a friend. The driver picked the pair up and headed towards Nairobi's South B, where Jane’s friend lives.

“The ride was problematic from the start. The driver had earphones on and could not hear our instructions. Our speed was around 50kph. He almost landed in a ditch twice,” she said.

On reaching South B, Jane’s friend alighted. Jane wanted to be dropped in South C.

“Unfortunately, the trip ended once my friend got off the car. The driver either did not hear us tell him that he should proceed to South C or outrightly ignored us. The charge came to Sh550. He agreed to take me to South C if I added Sh200,” Jane said.

The young woman only had Sh450 but she knew her friend who had just been dropped off would top up the amount via M-Pesa.

IGNORED PLEAS

“We got to my house and I handed him Sh450. I asked him to wait a bit as my friend sent the remaining Sh300. He refused. I asked him to allow me to go to the house to get the balance but he would not hear of it,” she said.

The driver ignored pleas by guards at Jane’s compound and sped off with her.

“I did not know where he was taking me. I begged him to drive me to the nearest police station where we could sort out the issue,” she said.

The driver seemed to agree to that but instead drove to a Directorate of Criminal Investigation training school which was closed for the day. Fearing he would dump her there, Jane pleaded to be taken to the nearby Akila Police Station.

“He then started calling for back up, saying he had a problematic client. I had no idea who he was calling and begged him to stop,” she said.

NO POLICE HELP

The car was approaching Khalsa School in South C and the driver had locked all the doors.

Sensing that the driver had no intention of letting her go even after her friend had paid the remaining fare, Jane rolled down the windows and started screaming.

“Some guards stopped the car. He told them it was a simple misunderstanding and that he had treated me like his daughter,” she said.

“I got out of the car and attempted to take pictures of the number plate but he sped away on seeing what I was doing, almost running me over.”

He was not done. While Jane was with the guards trying to figure out how to get home, the vehicle drove by slowly twice.

“The guards walked me home. The experience left me scared. I have reported the matter to Taxify and police but have not received help,” she said.

HIT STOMACH

While Jane escaped unharmed, two other women interviewed on NTV said they were assaulted by taxi drivers.

Ms Gloria Mulwa, for example, who also took a Taxify cab, said the driver hit her in the stomach repeatedly when she demanded change.

She was 38 weeks pregnant and feared losing her baby. Like Jane, police and Taxify officials have not taken any steps even after Ms Mulwa reported the matter.

Sally hailed an Uber taxi one night and barely made it home when the driver beat her up.

“I only wanted to get his money from the house and even offered to leave my bag in the car but he would not hear of it. He pushed me to the ground kicked my face. Security guards came to my help when I screamed,” said the 29-year-old marketer.

She got the money he was demanding but another complication developed because he did not have change.

SEXUAL OFFENCES

“I told him to send the balance by M-Pesa but this seemed to make him more angry. He pushed me again. This time, I kicked him. He finally left when the guard threatened to call the police,” she said.

She reported the matter to the company and was told later that the driver had been deregistered.

Uber, Taxify and other taxi-hailing services have faced security challenges.

In London, for example, Uber was denied a licence by the transport governing agency in September last year.

On April 12, last year, the Metropolitan Police wrote to TfL and set out its concerns that Uber London Ltd had not reported claims of serious offences by its drivers.

Police referred to circumstances in which a driver committed two sexual offences.

ABDUCTIONS

The letter said the delay in reporting meant no action could be taken as the period in which proceedings could be brought to court had expired.

Uber was granted a permit in April this year but for 15 months only. The original licence was for five years.

In Kenya, Uber and Taxify have taken a similar lackadaisical approach to passenger safety.

When asked about such assaults, intimidation or abductions on their platforms, both firms gave general answers.

“We are deeply committed to the safety of riders and driver-partners, which is why we have made safety features available to both riders and driver-partners,” said a spokesperson for Uber, giving a list of measures such as driver information and the option for riders to share their whereabouts during the trip with friends.

Taxify bragged about an SOS button connected to a first responder partner called “Rescue”.

NOT SUSTAINABLE

“Rescue is Nairobi’s largest network of ambulances and security teams and is able to dispatch a team to offer aid within seven minutes of receiving an incident report,” Taxify said.

But as Mr John Amuyunzu, a former Taxify driver found out, the button is not what it is touted to be.

“I used it once around 9pm and got a response from Taxify at 1pm the following day. It was in the form of an email asking what kind of assistance I needed,” he said.

The 44-year-old father of four, has been driving a taxi using different apps for two years but quit recently “because that kind of income is not sustainable”. He now drives a baggage pickup.

“There is very little in the way of safety for passengers and drivers. Drivers have been killed while making drop offs in risky places while riders have been assaulted by violent drivers,” he said.

He does not entirely blame the drivers for violent outbursts, pointing the finger at the system.

24 HOURS

Mr Amuyunzu says the system frustrates drivers and makes them prone to violence, especially when they think a customer is attempting to con them.

He says the low pricing model that has seen riders eschew traditional taxis and flock to the apps is to blame for inflaming drivers.

“Many drivers are frustrated and overworked. One can spend more than 24 hours on the road trying to beat the low charges. It is very frustrating,” Mr Amuyunzu added.

He said companies like Taxify are lax in their recruitment of drivers.

“Taxify picks anybody. It does not police the drivers. Bad behaviour from riders and drivers goes largely unpunished,” Mr Amuyunzu said.

Mr Frantz Githinji, also a former driver with Taxify, Uber and Safaricom-owned Little Cab, supports Mr Amuyunzu’s claims.

BACKGROUND CHECKS

“While Uber has a stringent background check that delays registration on the app for up to a week, Taxify does no such thing. You could apply to register on Taxify in the morning and be on the road picking up clients by that evening, as long as you have a vehicle, a PSV driving licence and a certificate of good conduct,” he said.

Many complaints that have been brought to the limelight involve drivers using the Taxify app.

In response to safety concerns by women, a new app, An-Nisa, launched last month. It will exclusively host women and drivers and is only available to women riders and children. This app is, however, more expensive than the rest in the market, charging customers a base fare of Sh300 and Sh40 per kilometre, putting it out of reach of riders such as Jane above who is a student.

“I would love to use the ladies only app but it’s too expensive for me. Also it is very unfair that I be forced to pay a higher charge just to ensure my safety,” she said.

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