Seed funded: What do digital technologies mean for African urban development?

Work and Mobility in Digital Mass Transport

This LSE Cities’ seed fund project covers a pilot study into the impact Uber has on transport provision, job creation and labour informalisation in Lagos and Nairobi.

Many African cities struggle to provide a functioning mass transportation system. The vast majority of commuters rely on unsubsidised privately provided transport in the form of informal minibuses (known as matatus in Kenya and minibus taxis in South Africa) and private taxis. These systems are regulated by a range of private transport interests, transport unions, political patronage and sometime criminal cartels, which are difficult to harmonise with official efforts to improve urban transport, environmental and security regulation. Yet, these local transport systems provided a vital service to poorer commuters long ignored by formal planners and they support the incomes of vast numbers of urban residents employed as drivers, collectors, touts, mechanics, body‐builders, decorative artists and workers at fuel stations. Transport hubs are also important locations for street hawkers and other informal businesses that rely on commuters to buy their products. The transport system is a great sector for understanding the challenges of economic inclusion in African cities because these systems are the veins through which African urban life pumps and have long been subject to organic processes of economic and political governance.

In recent years, a number of foreign and domestic technology firms have launched applications seeking to regularise the sector and subject urban transport to forms of digital governance, regulation, taxation and financialisation. Uber, in particular, has tried to digitally formalise the private taxi sector by promising consumers a more convenient and efficient service in comparison to the service provided by matatus and informal private taxis.

Proponents claim that these new digital offerings will upgrade urban transport in a number of ways. First, digital technologies have the potential to improve the commuter experience by reducing insecurity around buses, regularising costs, providing better scheduling information and inter‐connectivity between transit forms. Second, these technologies will potentially reduce crime and corruption by minimising the leakage of funds and by providing law enforcement agencies with an effective surveillance infrastructure (similar to Transport for London). Third, it is believed that digital technologies will help formalise the sector by generating reliable and up-to-date records, and thereby allow owners to gain access to formal credit/insurance and better monitor their operations. Lastly, these technologies promise to facilitate better local government planning of urban transport. While many have focused on the benefits for consumers, vehicle owners and urban planners, this research project also seeks to understand the impact of digital technologies on workers employed in the sector, and on wider processes of job creation and formalisation.

This pilot study will undertake a comparative analysis of how Uber is reshaping work and transport ecosystems in urban Africa, with a focus on two African cities: Nairobi, Kenya and Lagos, Nigeria. The case studies are part of a broader research project on digital transport and informal livelihoods in urban Africa.

Photography courtesy: OpenStreetMap