Ubering in Kampala

It’s interesting how a technological experience is not the same in different places around the world. The same app used in one city may be used very differently in another city. I found this out while in Kampala in February this year.

The “new normal” is here, and luckily I get to work from home (or wherever I find myself). In February this year, I decided that for a week, I would leave the smog of Johannesburg to embrace the smog of Kampala. There was a family event I wanted to attend over a weekend, and I decided to spend the rest of the week there working remotely.

I didn’t have a car to drive myself around, so I had to rely on the ubiquitous Uber. I opened the app, put my destination, it gave me the trip amount, and I accepted. A few moments later, I get a message from the driver on the app asking “where are you?” I thought he should know this, as I put it on the app, but tell him anyway. Then he asks, “where are you going?”. Again, I’ve already put this information on the app, but reply to his message anyway. “Sorry, the fuel price is to high, can you make it 30000 Shillings instead of 18000 shillings?”. I find this bizarre. Why am I haggling over an agreed upon price? I say “no, I can’t”. He says, “cancel the trip then”, and I see him on the in-app map driving away.

I decide to use boda-bodas to get me around. These are motorbikes which are used to transport individuals over short distances. Someone at the place where I was staying tells me the general price, so at least less haggling required.

Later that evening, I’m going to watch some live music. It’s night, so I book an Uber. Someone accepts, but upon seeing I’m paying with a credit card, he says that he only takes cash, so I should cancel and use cash. Generally, I NEVER have cash on me, but luckily I had converted some forex at the airport for sticky situations like this. We arrive at National Theatre, but when opening my door, one of these motorcylces slams into the door, with both the driver and passenger flying off. After a brief back and forth argument with the driver and his friend, as well as paying some compensation for damages to the motorcyclist, I decide that using Uber is probably the safer thing to use going forward. Except I found the experience to be quite frustrating.

I find joy in using services like Bolt and Uber because I don’t have to talk to the person besides a customary “hello” and “goodbye”. The destinations, payments and routes have all been taken care of by the app, and so I can get lost in my thoughts in the back seat without the inconvenience of forming a relationship with the driver. Except, during this trip in Kampala, that was all thrown out the window.

One would also likely find a different experience in Sydney compared to Rio De Janeiro. Or Nairobi compared to Tokyo. And none of these experiences are inherently good or bad – they are just different. This may be because the people in which a technology is deployed have their own communal customs, thought patterns and ways of interacting, making the way they make meaning of the technology different.

In 2007/2008, mobile money exploded in Kenya, and later in other East African countries. In 2010, I met someone who was hired by Nedbank to be part of their implementation of mobile money for the South African market. The whole endeavour didn’t go so well, because the way people transacted differed in South Africa compared to East African countries, making mobile money a solution desperately looking for a problem in South Africa. (MTN recently reported 5 million active mobile money users in South Africa, so I may be wrong. On the other hand, I’ve never heard someone ask me to send them money using mobile money).

Technology isn’t neutral, because it is given meaning by a particular people in a particular place. This meaning is built upon existing context-specific ideas, making the meaning of the technology and potential uses very context specific. Because of this, it must be quite hard for technology companies entering new geographical markets which have significant cultural differences from where they already operate. Because the costs of education and acquisition of new customers are so high, many opt to instead focus on the market they know.

New market growth requires humility, both humility to accept a different understanding of what one is offering, and humility to partner with those who may know the new market better, and may therefore be better suited to driving its growth there.

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