The con artist

I am not one to hold outdoors, but it was a warm cozy night under a warm yellow streetlamp damp with the fresh coat of rain. So, I flattered NyarSindo and we squeezed into this tiny Uber.

I use Uber interchangeably because it was actually a Bolt, and it is Kenyan to call all margarine Blue Band and any shoe polish brand Kiwi, so I come from a long tradition. Uber had the first to market advantage when they came in 2015 taking over small, disorganized taxi operators with a guaranteed customer model.

They promised volumes over small margins taking a cut for the flow of customers via an invisible algorithm that even the savvy mass of Kenya’s unemployed, who signed up onto their digital platform did not understand. But It worked, and backed by America’s easy money of the Silicone Valley, it scoured data, mapped out locations accurately and assured customers they would have their back having done background checks and with strict policies to keep their drivers disciplined.

Today all taxi hailing apps are called Uber; but most taxis that are hailed aren’t. The Con Artist, we will learn why I call him that later but for now, he told me that Bolt commands about 65 percent of the market. Why, because Kenyans like to game the system.

When Uber was muscling out old school drivers, Taxify moved in its shadows with its founder said to have been a believer that being a late entrant can be to a company’s advantage. It was, Bolt’s strategy according to Markus Villig to offer customers discounts to incentivise them to use their platform and therefore assure drivers even more traffic.

And Kenyans jumped on the discounts ride en masse, which made the application very attractive to drivers. One Uber driver told me that Bolt is especially popular in Eastlands and Uber remains popular in the wealthier areas of the city, perhaps demarcating the city along its economic rift. But most Kenyans moved to Taxify which later rebranded as Bolt, confirming former CEO of Safaricom Michael Joseph’s take that Kenyan’s have peculiar calling/bargain habits.

To meet this huge demand Taxify needed to expand fast onboarding more drivers by the day. Which let loose the noose. One driver told me while at Uber, his licenses were not allowed to expire and they would get notifications even before they did but at Bolt it was laissez faire. And soon the company was dealing with a public relations nightmare following allegations of rogue drivers and cases of assault.

But the Con Artist tells me the company survived on one thing, Kenyans like to game the system. He said despite the social media clamour, customers realised that the same Uber driver was the same Bolt driver switching from one taxi hailing platform to another. It is common for taxi operators to switch from platform to the rival that attracts no censure since the multinational companies do not want to pay pensions and benefits for contractual exclusivity.

Read also: East kwa ma-beast… Who shat me?

“Driver mbaya ni driver mbaya, ule anakubeba na uber asubuhi, ndio ako na bolt jioni so Wakenya wakaona gani ni cheaper,” the Con Artist said.

He was trying to convince Nyar Sindo that he was different. He told Nyar Sindo that a client once recounted to him how she had taken an Uber from cancer center carrying drugs worth Kes6000 only for the Uber driver to speed off when she alighted to drink juice by the roadside. An unlikely tale given the circumstances.

The Con Artist immediately asked us how much it said on the map, when we settled in. We told him Kes700. He made a quick calculation and asked if we could go offline. Now NarSindo was not inclined thinking safety first. But I quickly scanned his size and decided I have watched enough movies to mount fast reaction should the need arise. I said why not.

“You know why I quit Uber?” I began, “It was because a driver I had requested while late on a meeting accepted my ride and failed to turn up, or pick my calls. Then when I was forced to cancel, they surcharged me, and I just quit,” I started the conversation, indicating that I will not bear any blame for this fraud, but also carefully casting my net wide for his story.   

And so he told us that he would cancel without our censure, something to do about a radius. You see, he said, he needed to do very complex mathematics with the application. He owed the company Kes400 from previous trips and if he took our trip it would take his fees to Bolt to Kes540 and here is where it gets tricky.   

He said that Bolt does not allow them to keep more than Kes500 in fees and would not give him more trips until he paid up. He said that will leave him with Kes160 and he needed to put fuel. Hit with dollar shortages, Kenya’s fragile economy  has seen an escalation in price of imports especially petroleum products. High cost of petrol retailing at Kes179.30 in Nairobi, the highest price for the commodity since Kenya started regulating pump prices in 2010 is forcing taxi drivers to game the algorithms behind their taxi hailing applications.  

He said in our case we owed Kes700 but if we had a bonus of say Kes200 this leaves him with Kes500. And now although Bolt will absorb the cost by reducing what you owed them from Kes500 which is the maximum allowable debt to Kes300, you still have to pay or you are unlikely to get trip until you settle the fees. He said he downloaded the Bolt app as a customer and keeps getting enticing discounts although he does not use it.

“I noticed that the closer you are to the Kes500 mark you get a trip very easily so that you can cross over and pay,” the Con Artist says revealing his real ploy. If this is true, they are gaming the system falling off the radar at a time when it is ready to reward them and reward the company.

He says that it is also a risk for him because I can just decide not to pay him and having dropped off the platform, he has little recourse.

“Hii kazi ni kuaminiana, mtu hamjui anukutuma supermarket umfanyie shopping umchukulie pizza, unanunua na pesa yako unaenda kwake ndio akulipe,” he says.

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