I use Uber in Africa; by Alexandre Masraff & Ludovic Etienne

I’ve always been a motorcyclist. Having a car as a second vehicle was a practical choice. It was that or desperately look for a taxi. But that was before! Before Uber came to Paris. Since then, no more car.  I’ve become a regular customer of Uber, with its black saloon cars and generally careful drivers. No longer having to check the route the driver takes or guess what change I’ll need for a cash payment: I’m a fan!

So it was a natural next step for me to use Uber during my business trips to Africa and the Middle East.

First field test: Dubai. My first smile came when I noticed that the Pool option had been replaced by the Chopper option. The excess in this country! But let’s keep our feet on the ground; I’ll use a saloon to get to my appointment. They’re a cream colour here. The comfort of the Lexus is flawless. However, it does not come with the Parisian driver’s smile. The Dubai driver is not one for jokes. Nevertheless, a successful experience. The service is just as good as in Paris.

I take the adventure further. Here I am in Kampala, Uganda. My hotel’s dedicated taxi is not available. So, I launch the Uber app. Surprise! A few cars are passing through the area. I order and follow my driver’s approach with interest. The car remains stationary for several minutes. I am perplexed. But this is Africa. My driver may be sitting in a cheap restaurant eating a rolex[1]. Finally, his car icon moves. He comes closer, arrives at a crossroads and… goes the wrong way. It must be said that I haven’t seen a lot of taxi drivers using a GPS in this part of the world. He quickly makes a U-turn, takes the right direction, arrives at the next crossroads and… goes the wrong way again. He makes another U-turn and finally arrives in front of the hotel. Another surprise! Not the sparkling saloon but the handy Toyota that makes up half of the fleet, as dusty as the others and with several hundred thousand kilometres on the clock. Still, nothing shocking for someone as accustomed to Africa as I am. The drive goes smoothly. The driver perfectly masters the local roads. We arrive safely for half the price of a taxi.

Here I am, a few weeks ago, in Nigeria. I lived there for many years, as a security advisor for a large company. Getting around is a daily challenge in this country ravaged by crime and kidnapping. Companies, for the most part, discourage or even prohibit the use of taxis in Lagos or Abuja, much less the Niger Delta.

For an independent consultant carrying out his work, getting around in Africa is a cost factor and an undeniable problem. How to optimise cost-effectiveness for two weeks while minimising risks, in a country where the use of an armed escort is recommended… I had to try Uber.

And Uber in Nigeria — it works! That is, in Abuja or Lagos, in relatively safe expat areas (Victoria Island and Ikoyi) or in the „popular cauldron“ of Mainland, and, of course, with plenty of quirky and even funny situations and a good dose of caution and vigilance all the same.

In Abuja, Uber is a real plus. Wait times are seven to ten minutes, whether you are in the middle of the capital or more on the outskirts. It is also often easier to use this means of transportation than to rent a vehicle with a driver. The cars are in good condition. They are less than ten years old and Uber inspects them.

Nevertheless, you have to bear in mind that reading a map, positioning yourself and orienting yourself, are not done in the usual style. Many drivers are still learning about the city, GPS and how to read a map. Therefore, it is always preferable to contact the driver to check he has the right address for where you are.

The driver: „Sa (Sir), do you have a referred point?“

Me: „Yes, I’m just beside the big Shoprite, check on your GPS J“.

Another local element to consider: the quality of the GSM network is not always good, which can cause synchronisation and positioning errors. Also, in Nigeria, if people can avoid using their GSM credit, they do! Drivers therefore prefer to let you make the call to confirm the pick-up point and take on the cost involved J! If you happen not to have replaced your French number with your local number in the application settings, you will often hear: „Sir, you eat my credit ooo“ (translation: I’ve used up all my credit to call you on your Oyibo [white man] number).

Despite the harshness of life, Nigerians have a good sense of humour and love to laugh; the energy you spend trying not to get scammed is used to chat, talk and thus discover a little more about what makes this African giant so great: its people and their diversity! And then, to see sweets or even a bottle of water offered in a country where free things don’t exist is all very new and pleasant.

While the average salary does not exceed NGN 20,000, an Uber driver can earn between NGN 150,000 and NGN 200,000 (EUR 300 to EUR 400) after paying for fuel. From the young local entrepreneur driving his Chevrolet Avenger, to the driver renting his vehicle, to the young women who prefers this type of activity to selling apartments for property developers in the Gulf, the variety of people you encounter is particularly rewarding; the vast majority of them are very friendly and attentive. However, half the time you will still need to be a co-pilot to help your driver: „Where are we going Sa (Sir)?“ J, but the drives are pleasant and punctuated by friendly words, not to mention the „Sa, please put me five stars!“… „Yes, I’ll give you 7 stars“, everybody laughs; what could be more pleasant?

What about the risk? From a security point of view, using Uber, especially in Lagos, will not prevent the risk of carjacking, running into traffic jams, or assault. Nevertheless, in more secure areas of the city, the traceability of the route and the registration of the driver constitute safety guarantees in an environment where taxi drivers can be middlemen for criminal groups. Nevertheless, a little cautionary advice:

  • Tell your friends that you use Uber and regularly give your position to someone who will act if he doesn’t hear from you
  • Arrange pick-up and drop-off in the grounds of the hotel
  • Sit in the back of the vehicle and insist on locking the doors
  • Give your precise destination once inside the vehicle
  • Avoid paying in cash (even if this will help you avoid any bank transaction fees charged by your bank)
  • Restrict your use of Uber to the daytime and to certain so-called expat areas
  • Follow your positioning and your trip on your smartphone

Uber in Africa — it works! Still, it is necessary to get yourself a local SIM to have Internet access. Please note that I only recommend this to experienced travellers with a good knowledge of the country and the hazards of life in Africa. These travellers know that you must never be lulled by the apparent ease of a trip.


Guest Blog by Alexandre Masraff and Ludovic Etienne, senior travel security advisors.


[1] Rolex: phonetic contraction of roll egg; a rolled crêpe containing scrambled eggs and vegetables.