There are many things Lagos- Nigeria's commercial capital- is known for. One of them is a steady supply of people to buy almost any product or service you have to sell, thanks to its huge and relatively enlightened population.
Taxi service, Uber, must have realised this, debuting her Nigeria operations in Lagos in July 2014. In a little more than two years, the service has expanded massively with Uber cars everywhere- a development which has made regular cab drivers in the city very uncomfortable.
"I will give you Uber price!" This is the new sales pitch of Aliyu- a cab driver- trying to convince me to take his cab from the airport. He keeps jostling for my attention and says, "Car with AC. Good, comfortable ride. Just like Uber..."
Eventually, I take his cab. He then proceeds to rant about how Uber has "spoilt market" for regular drivers like himself.
"We used to take people from the airport to your destination for five or six thousand Naira before," he says. "Now, passengers don't want to pay more than three thousand Naira. They will just tell us that they can get a cheaper Uber alternative." He goes on to lament about how he has to compete with Uber cars, using up extra fuel to power his car air conditioner, and having to keep his car in top condition to be competitive.
He admits though, that Uber drivers earn much more because they spend less time looking for passengers, have more steady engagement and are not burdened with various levies. He feels however, that they often overwork themselves, and overuse their vehicles.
While Aliyu is complaining, there seems to be a much happier group at the Uber end. Samson, a top-rated Uber driver confides in me:
"I'm a university graduate and I do this Uber (driving) business to make extra money. I like it because it is very convenient once you are accepted into the program. You can make money and still have your dignity because you are not calling for customers around like regular drivers do."
Samson does everything to impress me and ensure I'm comfortable. In return, I pay him the fare set by the app (which is cheaper than it would have been with a regular cab) and give him maximum ratings.
While indeed Uber works great for drivers like Samson, it presents a big problem to the existing public transportation system. Cab drivers like Aliyu charge so much but earn much less because they have to pay all sorts of taxes and levies which Uber drivers have been able to avoid so far. At motor parks, there are touts and "chairmen" who earn commissions from each of these taxi drivers. Besides, there are official lobbyists who solicit passengers and negotiate with them in exchange for tips from the driver. A regular cab driver is therefore burdened with so many bills he cannot avoid. On the up side, this rather cumbersome cab system generates income for many people who are engaged in the industry in one way or the other and is easier for government and unions to track and regulate. It also works much better for people who are not technology savvy.
One thing is sure: taxi transportation is changing across Lagos. With regular cab drivers competing with Uber cars for patronage, there is one sure winner: passengers!