Steps Uber South Africa is taking to innovate its platform locally this year

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Earlier this week, Uber South Africa celebrated Innovation Day. Regardless of how you may feel about the company, for the past few years, it has routinely been cited when it comes to technologies that have disrupted an entire industry, with every other developer billing their creation as the “Uber of”.

With that in mind, we got the chance to speak to the general manager for Uber Sub-Saharan Africa, Frans Hiemstra, to get a better idea of the company’s approach to innovation, what it plans to do to tackle issues surrounding driver safety and gender-based violence (GBV), as well as what the rest of 2021 could hold.

The gold standard as far as innovation goes, Hiemstra says, that it is part of Uber’s DNA, and while that sounds good during an investor call, the GM notes that the company’s view of innovation is that it is intrinsically tied to a business’ survival.

Part and parcel

“The survival of a business is dependent on its ability to adapt to its surrounding circumstances and being able to meet the changing needs of customers and communities. Adaption is a must and as a technology brand, we are at the forefront of this,” he explains.

“As a technology company, we have the ability to look at the economics, data and feedback in each city and pilot a wide range of new products and features to provide the best possible service to drivers and riders.  We also use this method to improve current ones. For example on the driver side, we announced a series of initiatives to help drivers make the most out of using the app and invested in injury cover as well as introduced tipping, cash indicator, and rider verification,” notes Hiemstra regarding its approach to innovation.

Locally we’ve seen this play out with the introduction of cost-saving tools like Uber Pass and diversification-focused features in Uber Connect.

“We also spent time researching the East Africa market and listening to the public and for that reason we launched uberBODA (motorcycles) and UberPOA (TukTuks) across East Africa. Not only has this improved current travelling methods but also allows driver-partners another avenue to build on their small businesses,” he adds.

Looking at how the company pivoted during the pandemic and lockdown, we saw how Uber Eats in particular was able to shift its business model in order to thrive at a time when many faltered or simply were not geared to make operational changes as Uber could.

“These challenges presented an opportunity for us to adapt our business model and introduce a new way of traveling, eating and living while in a pandemic. At Uber, we have begun using our technology to adapt quickly to the needs of businesses and communities while assisting stakeholders and governments and the response has been well received,” says Hiemstra.

“We have also rapidly scaled the onboarding of grocery and convenience stores onto the Uber Eats app, to provide everyday essentials available for contactless delivery, while partnering with the likes of Medicare for medication and Game stores for household items,” he continues.

Safety first

It’s not all coming up roses for Uber, however, and locally in particular there are societal issues playing themselves out on the platform.

Uber South Africa, for example, needs to grapple with driver safety and gender-based violence (GBV). It has put some steps in place regarding the latter, but as always more can be done, which is something that Hiemstra acknowledges.

“We are committed to doing our part for human trafficking and GBV by partnering with experts. For example we partnered with Nissa [a local NGO] to build tools and policies, promoting awareness, and empowering our community of users including safety educational videos for drivers and riders on gender-based violence. We have also partnered with A21, a global anti-human trafficking organisation, to provide new resources and refreshed tips to drivers and delivery people so they can learn how human trafficking works, how it may present, and how they can report or reach out for help,” he points out.

“We provide drivers and riders with prevention information and educational materials through our Community Guidelines. They can also find safety tips and features, such as the emergency assistance button, in the app’s Safety Center. We also have a firm stance on transparency, and have an incident response team available to investigate and provide the necessary supported in any incident, including sexual harassment and assault. Most recently, we committed to a multi-year, multi-million dollar Women’s safety pledge campaign to partner with leading sexual assault and domestic violence partners around the world,” the GM goes on.

Along with needing to address GBV, Uber also came under fire for its categorisation of drivers, which remains an issue to this day.

For now, it does not look like that status is going to change any time soon, despite increasing pressure, but Hiemstra has highlighted a few tools and features that Uber South Africa is rolling out to at least offer drivers a bit more protection.

“We have made several changes to offer a better experience with more support and more protection, including through our Partner Injury Protection programme, new safety features and access to quality and affordable private healthcare cover for drivers and their families, voluntarily. We continue to do as much as possible to enhance that earnings potential of drivers, and leverage innovative rewards like fuel rebates, cellphone deals, and special offers on vehicle maintenance to help them,” he says.

“We’re calling on policymakers, other platforms and social representatives to move quickly to build a framework for flexible earning opportunities, with industry-wide standards that all platform companies must provide for independent workers,” according to Hiemstra.

Opportunity through adversity

2020 was a tough year for everyone, and 2021 is shaping up to be more of the same. Regardless of the adversities brought on by the global pandemic and lockdown, Hiemstra is optimistic that the innovation that Uber prides itself will help unearth opportunities to develop in similar ways it did last year.

“We know the coming months will be challenging for many however real opportunities lie in accelerating and evolving our delivery and logistics business. We believe in the power of adapting to any situation, and for us, this includes connecting even more drivers and delivery people to earning opportunities. We remain committed to the safety of our community, by continuing to adapt our offerings, safety features and payment options to offer affordable lifestyle solutions to locals,” he emphasises.

“The survival of a business is dependent on its ability to adapt to its surrounding circumstances and being able to meet the changing needs of customers and communities. Adaption is a must and as a technology brand, we are at the forefront of this,” he concludes.

With 2020 throwing many unknown quantities at the world, the lessons learned from 2020 appear to be standing Uber South Africa in good stead for the year ahead.

If it can indeed address issues surrounding driver status, safety and GBV, the platform will once again prove disruptive within its industry. Here’s hoping it can.

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Editor of Hypertext. Covers smartphones, IoT, 5G, cloud computing and a few things in between. Also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games when not taking the hatchet to stories.