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Where does Uber see itself in 5 years?
Courtesy: Nagla Rizk

Amid simmering tensions between taxi drivers and users of the two main transportation apps on the streets of Cairo, David Plouffe, Uber’s chief strategist and senior advisor, was in town this week with the message that the company is here to stay and grow.

With that in mind, Plouffe outlined the company’s vision to a packed hall at the American University in Cairo on Monday, and went on to meet key stakeholders in the government and business community.

“In five years, we want every person in Egypt who wants to do this on their own terms to be able to,” said Plouffe. “We want to bring it to every part of Egypt and to intensify partnerships with NGOs, governments and businesses.”

This would include the app not only in its current form, which has been wildly popular in Cairo and, more recently, Alexandria, but also the iterations of the app that are already growing globally, including UberPool and UberEats.

The next day, drivers of white taxis escalated their recent protest action against Uber and Careem, lining up around a main square in Mohandiseen and bringing a central part of the capital to a standstill. “We won’t give up, we won’t give in … The rights of taxi drivers must not be forgotten,” they chanted.

Taxi drivers began protesting against the two apps in February, accusing Uber and Careem of lacking the appropriate licensing, sidestepping steep fees and taxes, while chipping away at their livelihoods. Protests have intensified as some news reports circulated of drivers going as far as aggressively targeting and entrapping Uber and Careem drivers.

There are also growing problems with the capital’s traffic police. Speaking to the Associated Press, Major General Alaa al-Degwy, the head of Cairo’s traffic police, said that Uber and Careem are illegal, adding that police have begun clamping down on Uber drivers at checkpoints, and those who are caught must pay a fine. The police also revoke the driver’s license, confiscate the car license, and refer the driver to public prosecutors, he told AP.

But on Wednesday, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that the Cabinet has announced that it will form a committee to study ways to regulate Uber and Careem.

Throughout the past weeks, the executives behind the two companies have more or less taken a backseat in this brewing turf war.

Save for a few generic statements to the media, they have mostly kept quiet while it’s been users of the apps that have come out strong in defense of the services, lauding their quality and reliability while also sharing an abundance of negative experiences with the capital’s ubiquitous white taxis.

Until this week, when Uber brought in Plouffe, one of its high-level board members, who also happens to be US President Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, for a bit of an Egypt media blitz. The timing of the visit is far from curious.

At the AUC talk, moderated by Nagla Rizk, director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center, Plouffe spoke more generally about Uber’s experience around the world and less about the situation in Egypt directly.

“Most transportation rules and regulations around the world limit the number of people who can make money from driving and force people into car ownership,” said Plouffe, which only works to create increasingly congested cities.

In every city, he later added, there are old laws in place that are at times compatible, but often there needs to be a modernization of old regulations.

As for violence directed toward Uber users, Plouffe says, “We’ve seen some violence around the world, but that usually ends up expediting regulatory engagement with the government.”

In this dynamic, which the company has experienced in several major cities around the world, Uber’s “most important allies are the riders and drivers” to get the regulation moving, he adds. As evidence, Plouffe cites the previous absence of laws regulating ride share, a space which is now seeing momentum.

“We do want to be regulated,” he says, adding that, “Over time, drivers realize that they can also drive on the platform.”

As for government regulations, the core approach is that “you can’t treat people who want to drive on these platforms like regular taxi drivers — it’s not a career choice they are making and will restrict usage and lead to higher congestion,” he adds. Under some transportation regulatory regimes around the world, he says, it takes longer to be a driver than a pilot.

The flexibility offered by the platform and its popularity speaks of people’s desires, Plouffe says, as does the rise of the sharing economy. “People say they wish they had more money and time, so the sharing economy presents this benefit to consumers.”

Speaking of the trends of usage around the world, Plouffe says drivers on Uber aren’t necessarily making a career choice, instead, “they are using it for a period of time that suits their life” either to save money to start a businesses, to top up income for added or leisure expenditures, or to see them through challenging financial times.

Out of the 380 cities where Uber is present, Cairo is the company’s fastest growing city with “huge demands on riders and massive demand on drivers,” says Plouffe.

Citing high unemployment numbers in Egypt, Plouffe adds that the “value proposition is clear in an economy that is going through hard times.” According to the company’s statistics, more than 40 percent of drivers in Egypt had previously been unemployed.

There are now over 10,000 Uber drivers in Egypt, and the day he spoke at AUC, Plouffe himself attended the company’s largest new training session, with over 600 drivers.

Addressing concerns over deteriorating quality and reliability as the app grows in popularity, Plouffe says, “It’s the technology that ensures the quality. Phones are getting smarter so that now even erratic driving can be tracked.”

“We have the right public safety checks in place and security checks are built into the technology of the app itself,” he says, on top of which, the company in Egypt has a partnership with Harassmap.

Drivers in Egypt average 32 hours per week, compared to about 10 hours in the US, where the platform is used by people seeking extra income. Women drivers make up around 5 percent of drivers in Egypt, a number that will likely increase, compared to 18 percent in the US.

Plouffe also says that here some people drive on two platforms. “Their phone is on and the apps are on, and whenever they get that buzz they’ve got work and money coming in,” he says.

During his visit, Uber Egypt launched the Uber Economic Empowerment Program, which a company statement describes as aiming to provide “wider members of the community, including youth and women, with the resources, education and training to eventually become Uber partner-drivers, entrepreneurs and small business owners.”

While it’s the company’s UberX service that is currently found in Cairo, the capital will soon see the company’s carpooling service UberPool as well as UberEats.

Though carpooling apps have been difficult to scale in the past, as evidenced by a few that appeared in Cairo over the past years but faded, Plouffe is confident that Uber’s model can scale because there are enough cars on the road.

“We don’t want you to be a driver, we want everyone to turn on their phone and use their car on Uber while they’re running errands,” he says, with the long term goal being easing traffic congestion as the app usage merges with and complements metro and bike usage.

UberEats, meanwhile, promises to get users a meal in five minutes wherever they are. In the context of Cairo, with the rise of entrepreneurship in the food and beverage sector, this city might prove another easy get for the company.

“It’s not just about how cool the technology is in the digital world,” Plouffe says. “It’s about how empowering it is in the physical world and what it can enable.”

Amira Salah-Ahmed