By women, for women: African ride-hailing apps attempt to put safety first

Courtesy of Ubiz Cabs
With a $300 salary and a policy that sees them promoted in the company from driver to administrative staff, Ubiz Cabs drivers are not only empowered, but also upwardly mobile, says founder Patricia Nzolantima.
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It’s hard to miss Ubiz Cabs in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The hot-pink cabs swoosh up and down the busy streets, and the women behind the wheel wear matching pink and grey uniforms. This is Kinshasa’s first ride-hailing service – and it’s by women, for women.

In Africa, as is true around the world, reports of harassment or assault have left many women wary of ride-hailing apps. But while many companies promise more stringent regulations, some are pioneering women-first options: all-female driver fleets, for example, or services that allow female riders to select female drivers.

Why We Wrote This

Reports of assault have made many women wary of ride-hailing companies. Women-only services may be part of the answer.

Ubiz, for example, is the brainchild of entrepreneur Patricia Nzolantima, who says part of her vision is empowering women. Applying for a job with the company was not an easy decision, says recent graduate Ruth Nsendula; being a female driver is not the norm here. But the salary and safety protocols convinced her.

“When customers find out it’s a woman behind the wheel, they feel confident and safe,” she says.

Ore Sofola knows the rules of ride-hailing by heart: Don’t go out too late. Don’t get dropped off at your real address, so the driver can’t locate your house. Check the trunk before you start the trip.

“I only get in after confirming the plate numbers and I never sit in the front seat in case of molestation,” says Ms. Sofola, an entrepreneur in Lagos, adding that she stays alert and doesn’t get carried away on her mobile. “I don’t press my phone idly and always make sure to share my trip with someone.”

The ride-hailing industry is booming in Africa, fueled by both global giants like Uber and homegrown newcomers like Pickmeup. But like many women around the world, Ms. Sofola is all too aware of reports of trips gone wrong, from robbery to sexual harassment to assault – and in many cases, she says, there seems to be no punishment for drivers. But while major e-hailing companies promise more stringent crackdowns, some women are pioneering another possible solution to ensure female riders’ safety: ride-hailing for women, by women.

Why We Wrote This

Reports of assault have made many women wary of ride-hailing companies. Women-only services may be part of the answer.

Ubiz Cabs, for example, is the first on-demand car service in Kinshasa – and it’s hard to miss them. The hot-pink cabs swoosh up and down the busy streets of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, the largest city in central Africa. Behind the wheels are young women, dressed in matching pink and grey uniforms and attending to all sorts of clients: driving women to work, picking up and dropping off schoolchildren, and sometimes, delivering parcels.

The women-first platform is the brainchild of Patricia Nzolantima, who says she’s driven to craft a new narrative for the DRC, away from its conflict-ridden reputation – in part, by uplifting women. She previously set up Working Ladies WIA Hub, an incubator network for female-owned businesses. For its young founder, Ubiz Cabs is a response to several problems: It’s providing women with a stable job in a male-dominated industry, and keeping them safe while at it.

Although there are no official numbers regarding assaults related to ride-hailing recorded in African countries, South Africa alone recorded more than 42,000 cases of rape in 2019-2020. Across the continent in Nigeria, reports of assault have risen during the pandemic. Women-only rides may be part of the answer, though they don’t address all deeper causes. Does a woman rider plus a woman driver equal safety?

Courtesy of Ubiz Cabs
Ubiz Cabs is the first on-demand ride-hailing service in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Its drivers, mostly young female graduates, say they feel safer due to precautions like an emergency button and GPS tracking.

Shrinking the gender gap

Ms. Nzolantima noticed that at airports in Johannesburg, South Africa, or Nairobi, Kenya, passengers could book taxis and get home quickly. But when she got home to Kinshasa, the sight that greeted her was foreigners looking for places to sleep on the floor, because there were no trusted taxis available at the airport.

“The roads were unsafe, especially for women,” Ms. Nzolantima recalls. “So I thought, what can I do? And how can I solve the problem of a lack of women in the transport industry?”

Three years later, Ubiz Cabs is training more than 100 new hires, many of them young graduates. The cars are fitted with panic buttons and GPS devices that help a partner security firm track all drivers in case of an emergency, similar to safety procedures that Bolt and Uber have in place. Female drivers end their shift in the evening and male drivers take their place behind the wheel – an added precaution for employees’ safety, though it means late-night clients cannot have a female driver.

Ruth Nsendula, a recent graduate, applied two years ago after seeing a Facebook post about Ubiz Cabs and has since moved up in the company; she now both drives and has administrative duties. When she drives, her routine is simple: At 7 a.m., she starts picking up regular customers and some new faces. At 5 p.m., she hands over to a male colleague and heads home.

Applying for the job was not an easy decision, Ms. Nsendula says; being a female driver is not the norm in the DRC. However, the $300 monthly salary and safety protocols convinced her.

“I feel very comfortable with my profession as a driver although it is generally a profession exercised by men in this country,” Ms. Nsendula says. “When customers find out it’s a woman behind the wheel, they feel confident and safe. I also feel more secure with the GPS installed in all cars: In case of a problem, they can easily locate me.”

It’s a pink revolution in Kenya, too. In 2016, cab-hailing company Little launched Lady Bug, with an all-female fleet of drivers that only accept female customers during late-night rides.

An Nisa, a similar service in Kenya, carries women and children only.

“I always felt uncomfortable being in a car with someone I didn’t know, and I felt safe being with a fellow lady. A lot of women around me had similar fears and so did our drivers,” An Nisa founder Mehnaz Sarwar says via a WhatsApp chat. “Women have to watch over their backs to make sure they reach their destination safely. We hope to end all this and have women get from point A to B safely and with peace of mind.”

Enough drivers?

Things are also turning around, albeit slowly, in South Africa. Bolt launched a service in several cities late last year that allows female riders to select female drivers (though currently, there are far more male e-hailing drivers across Africa).

Not all riders know about such services, though. Except in the DRC, where Ubiz Cabs is the only e-hailing option, all-women rides are much less known. In South Africa, “people say they didn’t even know it was a thing,” journalist Fatima Moosa says of Bolt’s program. 

In an email to the Monitor, Bolt’s southern Africa manager Gareth Taylor says its women-only service is growing, with “a significant increase in the number of women applying to join the platform as drivers.” He adds that the company is not aware of any cases of violence against its female drivers in South Africa in the six months since the service launched. Apart from SOS buttons and trackers, female drivers can cancel a trip if they are expecting to collect a female passenger and a male passenger shows up. Uber, the other market leader in the region, has launched an option for female drivers in South Africa to indicate they prefer female passengers.

Back in Kinshasa, Ubiz Cabs continue to swoosh up and down in their bright colors, and Ms. Nsendula must soon get back on the road. She hopes more change is ahead: that people will accept female drivers as a new norm, and even more importantly, give them a safer environment. “I think that a woman driver in DRC is capable of doing a lot of things, and she has the power to become what she wants,” Ms. Nsendula adds.

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