Mehnaz Sawar’s own investment of USD 10 K into a taxi app solution for women and children made news after its launch last week. The service is said to be initially only available in Nairobi before testing market demands from other towns. An-Nisa which in Arabic means “women only” seeks to offer the promise of safety and comfort sought by women in a competitive cab-hailing business in Nairobi that is dominated by men. A similar service is offered by Little Cab as a joint venture between Craft Silicon and Safaricom offering open use between 6 am and 6 pm and women only the rest of the time.
In order to run a profitable cab business, An-Nisa will need to attract a high number of female customers who prefer the services of a female-only cabbie as well as provide the female cabbie drivers sufficient demand in order to balance the supply and demand of this offering. Initially, An Nisa is charging female cabbies 10% of the ride cost which is markedly lower than the 15% or 25 % charged by other players. Mehnaz Sawar hopes that this will, on one hand, give women and children customers a lower fare for similar distances they have been covering as well as attract women drivers who will earn better commissions to give an incentive to women entrepreneurs who may also be single mothers. When the story was covered by The Standard, Mehnaz commented that “It is a source of empowerment for those ladies and at the same time, it makes a safer option for women who are not comfortable being driven by men, maybe for religious reasons or safety concerns,” Sometimes picking children from school is a real necessity when the designated driver becomes unavailable.
A closer investigation of how women use transport in general in Kenya would bring out useful analogies. The user groups would largely fall into three broad categories according to their occupation and social status. Using a cab in Kenya is predominantly seen as what only well-to-do people can afford – or those who are not exactly well-to-do but wish to be seen that way. Other times, using a cab would be necessary for instances where getting somewhere quickly would be a priority or instances when public transport availability is affected either due to adverse weather, seasonality or other reasons. Mostly women who use public transport would fall into three categories. They would either be “Wanjiku” meaning ordinary womenfolk, “Mama Mboga” representing the enterprising league of women entrepreneurs that sell groceries by the roadside and neighbourhood kiosks across the country, or “Boss Lady” who represent women working for large organisations in senior positions, heads of government bodies or blue-chip companies or even those who own mid to large enterprises. Wanjiku’s budget covers regular fare on public transport. She is able to even walk if situations demand. She would only use a taxi if somebody else is paying or on very rare occasions and when its an emergency. At that time, it would not matter if the driver is male. Mama Mboga would never order a female cabbie. That would be ridiculous. She moves around when most people are still asleep mostly as early as 4 am and her transport needs are purely sacks of groceries that need to be moved from the main agricultural produce markets into her distribution zone. Boss Lady as you might expect moves in chauffeured vehicles with tinted windows and may even own more than one personal car. Although many more women are growing in the corporate world, the numbers are still low. Boss Lady, therefore, represents a market segment that could both afford to use a taxi as well as afford to pay for the service of a competent driver irrespective of gender. An-Nisa’s success would, therefore, depend on attracting a solid female user base that does not fall under these three broad categories and give them a reason to use the service frequently in order to provide stable income to the bevy of female cabbies signing in on the app platform.
When the major cab-hailing app provider launched in Nairobi three years back, the number of taxi drivers were reported to have been around 10,000. The Star recently reported a growth in this number reaching 12,000 with women drivers forming only 3%. An-Nisa’s ability to attract as high as 2,000 female cab drivers on its platform would be a major achievement. Established taxi apps have to not only incentivize drivers to stay but also get those who download the app to use it often. The sector is plagued by changes in the operating environment from fuel prices to government regulation, as well as frequent strike notices by drivers unhappy with their earning potential.
To be fair, competent and even courteous male cab drivers or drivers of other modes of public transport exist in Kenya. However, road safety and harassment of women using public transport are well-documented. Some specific areas in Nairobi could also pose safety concerns irrespective of the gender of the cab driver. An-Nisa’s service provision could hint at perhaps curbing the growing levels of incidences of either poor service quality or either one form of harassment. By not providing the service option to men who would want a female cabbie – for whatever reasons, An-Nisa risks losing this seemingly larger market segment to the first provider who will roll it out. Other service gaps needed to make an all-female delivery ecosystem complete would have to cover women-only garages, gas stations as well as driving schools. The jury is out on this one.