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Uber Drivers In Nairobi Discover Not All Taxi Drivers Welcome Competition


The drive by Uber, the driving service, to go global faces resistance in Kenya. Taxi drivers there say Uber is stealing their business, and things are getting violent. Six men were charged last week with attempted murder of an Uber driver. They are said to have orchestrated a wave of attacks in Nairobi which included torching two Uber vehicles. NPR's Gregory Warner reports the violence has not stopped Uber drivers in Nairobi from hitting the road.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It's around 10 p.m. in Nairobi, and we're driving past a strip of bars and clubs - and past dozens of taxi drivers loitering out here who might not be pleased if they knew of our presence.

JOHN MACHARIA: Right now at the stop you can hear them say, he's Uber - is this Uber?

WARNER: Thirty-six-year-old John Macharia has driven for Uber since November. He will make pickups in this spot, but he'll first call up the client in a kind of stealth operation.

MACHARIA: Yeah, we basically tell them, are you ready? Have you got into the road? OK, I'm coming. Look at my car in the traffic. Just come, get in (laughter).

WARNER: One night on the street, he made the error of delaying too long in traffic, and he looked up to see four men materialize from the darkness. One carried a club of wood - maybe it was a cricket bat.

MACHARIA: I heard bangs on my car (laughter). I was so frightened. I just went somewhere and sleep (laughter).

WARNER: Really? That's how you deal with being frightened?

MACHARIA: I just went somewhere and just relaxed.

WARNER: But after a two-hour nap, he was back online - back on the road and, remarkably, having some measure of sympathy for the 15,000 traditional taxi drivers trying to work in Nairobi. He predicts that Uber and their hundreds of drivers will dominate Nairobi's taxi market completely.

MACHARIA: I think by the end of this year.

WARNER: By the end of this year?

MACHARIA: By the end of this year there will be few taxis operating in Kenya.

WARNER: Uber launched in Nairobi in January 2015 to lots of doubts. Other ride-sharing companies had not gained much traction. Credit cards aren't common. But Uber introduced an option to pay by cash or mobile phone in Nairobi. And no one quite knew how willing Kenyans would be to abandon the traditional taxis - least of all, the cabbies themselves.

KENNEDY NJAU: That's the end of us now.

WARNER: Kennedy Njau is a cabbie who stakes out what used to be a profitable parking lot opposite Nairobi's upscale Westgate Mall. There are no reliable numbers on Uber's share of the Nairobi market, but for the 20 minutes I was in this lot, not one of a half-dozen cabbies got a fair, while they watched two Ubers make pickups and race off.

NJAU: Hopefully everything will be okay.

WARNER: So what will you do?

NJAU: (Laughter) We'll see.

WARNER: Uber is often portrayed by its enemies in the States as a sketchy upstart. But here it's viewed as a slick import, offering cheaper fares and newer cars with working seatbelts. Uber requires its Nairobi drivers to bring cars that are less than 8 years old. That's a benchmark that none of the cabbies in this lot can meet.

NJAU: Competition also is competition. We will try so many other ways.

WARNER: But Kenyan taxi drivers are running out of ways to fight back. A planned strike to stop traffic never happened. The recent arrests have seemed to put a damper on the wave of attacks. And Uber just launched in a second Kenyan city, Mombasa. John Macharia, the Uber driver from before, says he hopes one day to own a fleet of cars, put them all in commission for Uber, and maybe even hire his former taxi buddies as the drivers.

MACHARIA: They will recognize that they are being beaten, job-wise. They will join us. They will.

WARNER: He says then he'll feel safe driving at night - when everyone's on the same side. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.