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Business Design

Building a Niche but Fair Uber Alternative in Kenya

I designed and prototyped a mobility platform for personal drivers in Nairobi, Kenya

Kenya’s capital Nairobi has a fairly established ride-hailing sector, with more than 10,000 drivers working for Uber, Bolt and the local startup Little. However, not everyone’s mobility needs are met by those platforms and their universal business models.

During the trips related to my work for InspiraFarms, we often went out of town to visit clients. While ride-hailing works well for urban trips from A to B, getting around in Kenya often requires more flexible services. For example, when going to remote places, hailing an Uber is often not an option. The pricing model simply doesn’t make sense when drivers are required to wait during meetings or navigate to destinations where map routing is not available.

Therefore, many businesses work with drivers who they know personally and who can adjust more flexibly to their mobility needs. Those drivers, however, usually charge more than the typical taxi driver, because they have to price in a higher service level, flexibility and lower total productivity due to idle waiting times. When a personal driver is booked for a morning trip, usually the remaining time is lost for other business.

However, personal driving jobs are more lucrative because of the low fares and commission rates that come with ride-hailing platforms. Considering the driver’s high overheads due to the high costs of fuel and leasing rates of the car (which they often don’t own), it is not surprising that many work daily shifts of 10-12 hours to make a living.

Recognizing similar challenges and effects on working conditions that come with the gig economy, the Platform Cooperativism movement has been promoting an alternative design approach. Other than aiming to meet the interests of individual investors, platform cooperatives use technology in the interest of those, who create or consume the value of a platform. For example, a “cooperative Uber” would be legally owned by drivers, who democratically decide on their working conditions, and make sure everyone benefits from their mutual effort.

Drivas is an experiment on how this model could be implemented in the local market of Nairobi, and how design methods can support the success of a driver-friendly platform.

After interviewing a number of local drives and analyzing the city’s mobility market, I decided to begin with the development of a valid business model. Before creating more value for drivers, even a fair platform should be able to realistically gain traction in a market that is already dominated by existing, well-financed platforms.

The landing page of Drivas

Over several months, I conducted a series of lean startup sprints during which I designed, built and iterated different models. After a failed approach that targeted middle-class consumers, I focused exclusively on business consumers. As opposed to existing ride-hailing services, I packaged the services for the needs of business trips, starting with a minimum package of 3 hours.

Along the process, I designed landing pages which I promoted with Facebook Ads and postings in niche groups. Also, I directly engaged business customers in local office spaces. Interested users could request rides using WhatsApp, which allowed me to interact with everyone and better understand their needs, without having to develop booking systems to begin with.

As soon as Drivas addressed a rather niche market, several customers proactively engaged through WhatsApp and booked personal drivers. Insofar, lean startup methods have shown to be an effective tool to build sustainable, worker-friendly digital platforms – especially in a period of changing rules for platform businesses.