How Trinidad & Tobago Could Have Avoided Uber: The African Example

The Uber car service recently launched in Trinidad & Tobago and is now available in Port of Spain and San Fernando. Our small Caribbean country is thus the 77th country in the world and 1st in the English-speaking Caribbean to boast – or mourn if you ask local taxi drivers – the availability of the sometimes controversial car service. Uber has drawn the ire of existing traditional taxi services in its new markets: just to name a few, in South Africa taxi drivers rallied under the “Uber Must Fall” banner in their attempts to stop globalisation’s latest outgrowth in its tracks, and in France protests have often turned violent, as recently as last month.

Uber’s operations in Trinidad and Tobago have started out on an unsure legal footing: the Ministry of Works and Transport has indicated that the use of private vehicles for hire is prohibited under T&T’s Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act. In passing the same law is flouted as a matter of custom with the PH taxi system that has existed in Trinidad and Tobago since time immemorial.

Trinidad and Tobago is not the only country where the ride sharing service has found itself on a legal slippery slope, as authorities in both India and South Africa have called Uber out for not having relevant licences.

Uber clearly illustrates the porous nature of all country’s markets or economies in the 21st century era of globalization in which national rules mean little and market penetration is potentially easier than ever. The arrival or intrusion of such companies can have devastating effects on the incomes of workers in affected sectors. Imagine if this is the case in a country like France how much more so it would be in developing countries where transport workers like taxi drivers would likely have considerably less job security and social protection.

In light of this, one wonders why entrepreneurs in more developing countries have not seized the opportunity to beat Uber to the punch and launch a similar service that would not jar the local industry in the same manner since it would be conceived by and for people who fully understand the prevailing local conditions.

Inclusive local economic growth.

This is what has been done across the Atlantic in West Africa, where an entrepreneur in the Ivory Coast launched the Africab service in 2015, and areis now fanning out to neighbouring countries like Togo and Benin, with plans to spread to Senegal and Cameroon next. According to the company’s founder, companies like his create the conditions for “inclusive local economic growth” rather than “capturing local value in order to export it”, which fits in with the point made in the previous paragraph above. Africab offers several price ranges and sites sub-Saharan Africa’s rapid economic development and growth of the middle class as highlighting the need for improved transport infrastructure and the potential for strong demand respectively. Current economic downturn notwithstanding, these same points apply to Trinidad & Tobago.

What is more, Africab explains that it allows people the choice to “put the principle of personal (vehicle) ownership aside”, by investing in the company’s cars thereby becoming part owners. With the congested roads in T&T, and with the country ranking a dismal 2nd in the world as a per capita producer of greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, citizens owning less cars per capita cannot possibly be a bad thing for the environment.

In sub-Saharan Africa only 6 countries – those being Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda – have an Uber presence. It looks like in others like Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo, Uber’s arrival has been staved off – or at the very least delayed – by the fact that local companies beat Uber to the punch.

This must be a major factor in the company’s absence thus far in these countries; Uber’s stated objective is to gain a foothold in “modern cities”, and Ivory Coast’s capital Abidjan (see image below on the left) has the physical infrastructure that would make just about any city in the English-speaking Caribbean green with envy (see Port of Spain, below on the right), in addition to boasting a population of just under 2 million potential customers – more than the total population of Trinidad & Tobago.

At the same time, it is possible that with a dismal World Bank ease of doing business ranking of 142, maybe Ivory Coast isn’t on Uber’s radar just yet for a number of reasons. For comparison, T&T’s ranking is higher, but is still a dismal 96 (3rd in CARICOM behind Jamaica and St Lucia at 67 and 86 respectively).

How did this turn out to be such a massive blind spot for entrepreneurs large and small in Trinidad & Tobago – the country with the most bustling economy in the English-speaking Caribbean? We’ll be scratching our heads about this one for a while.

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3 Comments

  1. What I don’t understand is, if it is illegal in T&T for private vehicles to be used for hire how can Uber start operations legally. Would it not be the T&T government to step in and shut them down?

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    1. Exactly what I thought to myself too. It seems absurd for a company to operate illegally while the government just watches passively. Apparently the government sees the cars as owned by the individuals but according to Uber the cars are privately owned not by the individual drivers but by a company so that’s supposed to count as some kind of loophole.

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  2. It shouldn’t be illegal for particulars to drive others for money. They do it all the time for friends and relatives for free so they will take it even more seriously and responsible if it is made as a business for them.

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