Drivers unhappy with Taxify’s rapid growth

Taxify’s expansion to four Garden Route towns comes at a time when taxi drivers in e-hailing-saturated cities such as Johannesburg say the company’s growth is forcing them out of business.

The Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, George and Mossel Bay branches follow openings in East London, Polokwane and Pietermaritzburg in October.

Taxify now has a presence in 13 locales in South Africa, compared with Uber’s five. Taxify’s country manager, Gareth Taylor, says more launches are planned. Third-party source App Annie, in figures from December 2016, says Uber had 620 000 weekly active users and Taxify 94 000, though numbers will have changed since then.

After an ineffectual strike in Johannesburg, during which e-hailing app drivers damaged one anothers’ cars in failed attempts to force a work stoppage, drivers complained of being hurt by Taxify’s expansion, which they said had led to a sharp decrease in earnings.

Launched in South Africa in 2016, Taxify was the brainchild of 19-year-old Estonian Markus Villig, who launched the app in 2013. Taxify pursued an aggressive growth strategy: within six months, it had expanded to Cape Town and Durban after launching in Johannesburg.

“With Taxify now, supply is more than demand,” says driver Thabani Ngcobo*, referring to Johannesburg. “I rent my car for R2 500 a week [from an owner]. I pay the petrol myself. You can turn over R4 000 a week on an extremely good week. [The owner] wants R2 500 a week; the petrol and data costs are mine. With the number of cars on the road, it hurts your family life and safety to chase those targets.”

Taxify takes a 15% cut on every trip, compared with Uber’s 25%, and its fares are slightly cheaper than Uber.

Some drivers are asking riders upfront to cancel card trips and re-request them as cash trips so that they can secure enough petrol for a productive day.

Ngcobo says he made R3 272 in a mid-month week in November before car rental costs, but the highest was R7 363 in a month-end week in June this year. “I would go home to bath and go back on the road. No sleep,” he says.

In efforts to increase their income, drivers have been offering private trips offline — more lucrative because no commission is involved.

Others use both Taxify and Uber, and report different user experiences relating to communication and safety measures. They say Taxify is less communicative and has little regard for driver safety. Taxify also has no listed number and only an email address. Drivers say it can take several days to resolve disputes.

Several months ago, Taxify instituted number-masking technology, which it says was to protect drivers and commuters by limiting post-trip contact. The unintended consequence of this was more cancelled trips because calls between commuters and drivers failed.

Taylor says, for masking to work, the SIM card number has to be the same as the number that is registered on the app, but this is often not the case in South Africa, where people change phone numbers frequently.

Drivers, in turn, say it was a failed attempt to curtail moonlighting.

“The system of private trips works only if you have lots of them,” says driver Lungelo Mdladla*. “Sometimes we wish for the regulated tier system because then we always had petrol. Owners were mandated to supply petrol in the old system where the relationship between operator, driver and owner was regulated through the app.”

Taylor says the rental system (entered into between drivers and vehicle owners) has afforded many drivers an opportunity to earn a living. But drivers believe these informal relationships can lead to onerous terms, leading to more time driving.

Taylor would not divulge the exact number of Taxify cars on the roads, but did say it was more than 10 000.

Despite driver complaints of falling profits, Taylor says profits are on the rise across the board, a figure doubtlessly enhanced by the company’s presence in several new markets.

Taylor says the platform would stop accepting cars if they saw that “the earnings per hour have decreased drastically … then we will look at it because we don’t want the drivers to be suffering”.

Taylor suggests drivers choose popular hailing spots to their detriment. “Drivers know that, if they have the same strategy as everyone else, there is less money for them to be earning,” says Taylor. “We see a huge amount of unmet demand in other areas.”

But Taxify drivers say “the suffering” has begun, with many seeking other work.

And for every fed-up driver un-able to keep their head above water, another is willing to try their hand at the e-hailing business, regardless of the safety risks, demonstrating the desperation of people who would otherwise be unemployed.

* Not their real names

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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