NAIROBI, KENYA (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) – With their manicured nails, immaculate make-up and matching handbags and stilettos, you would be forgiven for mistaking the five women seated in the cafe of the upscale Nairobi hotel for a group of senior female executives.
Sipping white hot chocolate from delicate porcelain cups, they discuss their long working hours, challenges in finding time with their children, and share strategies on networking and dealing with difficult clients.
But these Kenyan women aren’t company directors, finance professionals or corporate lawyers – they are part of a new breed of women who are breaking into the male-dominated taxi sector and hitting Nairobi’s roads as e-cabbies.
As taxi-hailing apps mushroom to fill a hole in Nairobi’s poor public transport system, rising numbers of women are taking up jobs as drivers – citing benefits such as flexible working hours, the ability to select passengers, and guaranteed payment.
Online women cabbies currently only make up around 3 percent of city’s estimated 12,000 e-taxi drivers – but industry officials say their numbers are growing exponentially.
Little Cabs – one of Nairobi’s popular ride-sharing platforms, and the only app offering riders the choice of a male or female driver – has witnessed a 13-fold increase in the number of women drivers over the last two years.
Kenya’s economy has grown on average by 5 percent annually over the last decade, but the benefits have not been equally distributed – and women remain disadvantaged socially, economically and politically.
Despite global criticism that the sharing economy lowers wages, encourages tax evasion and provides little protections to users, the emergence of platforms such as taxi-hailing apps in Kenya are in fact helping to empower women.
In the last three years, at least a dozen e-cab apps have launched to meet the demands of a growing smartphone-armed middle class seeking an affordable and safer alternative to the city’s reckless overcrowded matatus, or minivans. Drivers earn a minimum of 30 Kenyan shillings ($0.30) per minute and companies take up to 25 percent their earnings, but women drivers still welcome the opportunity provided by firms such as Uber, Taxify, Little Cabs and Pewin.
Minus the company fee, fuel and car rental costs, drivers working 12 hours daily can earn on average 60,000 shillings ($600) in a month, say industry sources.
The women choose riders with higher ratings and opt for locations in populated rather than isolated areas. Their companies also track them via GPS and they have an alert/SOS button on their apps for support if they need help.
But it’s not always a smooth ride for Kenya’s female e-cabbies. They occasionally face discrimination and abuse – from difficulties renting cars due to biased perceptions that women are bad drivers, to fending off drunken male passengers.
And with their phone numbers accessible to customers through the app, the women also endure daily “follow-up calls” from former customers who want to date them after the trip is over.
The female cabbies say they also face sexist comments where people perceive them to be sex workers simply because they are well-dressed, working at night, and doing a “man’s job”.
But such instances are rare, say the women drivers, and working in the taxi sector has inspired some of them to one day have their own fleet of taxis – for women driven by women.
($1 = 100.5000 Kenyan shillings)