Can Tech drive the Lagos Taxi towards pleasant user experiences?
You prepare for violence every time you set out in Lagos to take the bus. The sort of violence to which I refer may turn out to be, at the end of the day, only verbal. You escape having to engage in loquacious fisticuffs and nobody slaps you in the face or rips your jeans.
You’re only mildly harassed, loudly christened stupid, oloshi, ode, mumu, or weyrey, just for being too slow, too fast, not having the right change, or talking like you’re too smart. It is what it is, a part of what defines being a Lagosian.
So, when you realise that there’s a new ridesharing app in the city, Lagride, whose drivers mostly used to be members of the original cabalistic, impatient yet contented Lagos garages, you’re intrigued.
You wonder: how will algorithmic transportation look in the hands of the city-seasoned cabdrivers who typified verbal violence and quiet aggression? You have to find out for yourself. And to do that, you prepare by reminding yourself that this is not your genteel Uber and reawaken your old feisty instincts, as this might get rather aggressive.
After taking a huge breath, I fire up the Lagride app and order my ride. And I am immediately surprised. First of all, for being a first-time user, Lagride has awarded me a bonus of N1,000. This is wonderful, thank you very much.
Then, the system shows me that there are four categories of rides, A through D. Class A means you ride alone and pay your fare all by yourself. Each of the other classes adds one more passenger until there are four of you in the car with the driver—and you split the fare with your three co-riders. As I tapped away on the app, I wish the its user interface didn’t look like a secondary school pupil’s midterm project and that the logo didn’t look unfinished. Well, wishes aren’t horses and I am a beggar.
In the meantime, I elect to ride solo because I have a secret motive. Although he doesn’t know it yet — and will probably never know it — this trip is going to be a press interview with my Lagride driver.
But five minutes after ordering the ride, my driver, Lamidi, still hasn’t shown up.
I call him.
“You took the ride,” I say. “Are you coming?”
“I am far o. I dey that LTV side.”
“Really?” I reply in an even tone, maintaining composure. Today, we must make the driver feel eminent and neutralise any likelihood of violence before it shows its face. “That’s quite a stretch from Adeniyi Jones where I currently am. The app says you are only four minutes away.”
“Ah, it is far o. Cancel, cancel. Cancel it.”
“I should cancel the ride? Why don’t you cancel it?”
“Don’t worry; they will not charge you anything. Cancel it, Oga.”
Okay. Cancelled. Thank you, Mr Lamidi, for now filling me with trepidation. But will I try again? You bet!
When my new driver finally arrives, he is impatient. “Oga, I dey outside o. I am outside. You said you were ready na.”
“Just a minute, please. I’m coming out now.”
I wave at him as I approach the blue and white GAC car.
“Good morning, Sir,” I say, smiling. I have also taken the pains to dress up in a manner becoming of a distinguished gentleman. No jeans, no T-shirts, no sneakers. This here is a serious businessman boarding your taxi.
“Ah, good morning, Sir,” the driver greets me as I slide into the backseat. He is a bulky man, perhaps in his late 50s, evidently experienced on these roads. The app tells me his name is Ademola.
I settle in, he pulls into gear, and the interview begins.
“Wow, your car is tear-rubber,” I say.
Tear-rubber is pidgin English for a brand-new item, delivered in its original packaging. In this car, the plastic wrapping on the seats and dashboard are still there, though gradually giving way, and not as clean as they once were.
“Ah, yes o. They said we should leave the rubber there o,” Mr Ademola laughs. “They said that our passengers have to know that our car is new.”
New car, new car scent, leather seats, smooth manoeuvring, pleasant driver. It’s all going well. And, apparently, Mr Ademola also loves driving for Lagride. He says the difference between this and his many years as a Lagos yellow cab driver are like night and day.
“By the time I turn on the app every morning,” he says, “at least three orders will be waiting for me.” This is definitely unlike the old days when cabdrivers must wait at their allotted parks and take turns to drive walk-in passengers. As for the passengers, they were compelled to accept the next-in-like taxi, no matter how smelly the car might be. But nowadays, Ademola sets his own workhours and is still sure of making his daily financial targets.
As we neared my destination, the driver makes a quick stop at a microfinance bank. From the car, he calls out to a friend and hands the man a bunch of folded one thousand naira notes.
“Help me give Ayinde,” he tells the friend. “Four thousand.”
I believe this is Ademola’s daily esusu deposit, more guaranteed now, of course, because of tech.
It is this same tech that’s making it possible for thousands of other Lagosians to make their living the way Ademola does. For instance, in 2017, Uber’s figures showed that 7,000 drivers and 276,000 riders were using its app in Nigeria.
While the pioneer ride hailing app has not completely solved the country’s unemployment problems, it has helped to elevate the urban transportation business.
Uber’s continued success since it hit the road in Lagos in 2014 has inspired competitors, including Bolt (launched in 2016) that Nigeria’s financial capital, with its population of nearly 20 million people, was an excellent market. And, if these imported tech companies could find value on Lagos roads, why couldn’t legacy players do the same?
Previously, the administration of Governor Babatunde Fashola had offered taxi drivers the financing to replace the inhospitable cabs that many of them pushed around the city.
That’s the best the city could do at the time — there was no such thing as a ridesharing algorithm in the country at the time.
Now, however, the state’s programme is more comprehensive — with a maintenance, tracking, and training as built-in features.
“We have to go for another training this weekend,” Ademola says.
“What’s the training about?” I reply. “How to pick passengers?”
This is an unnecessary question, the answer to which I already know: with these trainings, the management of Lagride is trying to teach these old dogs a new trick.
I imagine that, to actually compete against Uber, Bolt, and their dozen other cousins, the new Lagos cabman must adapt his attitude to the rules of the new gig economy, namely timeliness, courtesy, and a regard for the customer’s choice. If he doesn’t, the precious freedom of schedule and superior revenue that the Lagride offers him may just vanish.
On my way back, at about 7:15 pm, I am picked up by another Lagride driver, Oluwaseun. He arrives within two minutes of accepting the order. He is cordial, reserved, and knows the routes.
Unlike Ademola, Oluwaseun is clearly not a veteran of the outmoded metropolitan taxi system. He is a millennial, a member of the Uber generation, who has now joined the ranks of the reenergised seniors to keep the city going.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.