What Uber taxi wars and regional tourism teach us?

By: Allan Brian Ssenyonga

There is this wise fellow (that’s my way of saying I forgot his name) who addressed a business summit in Kampala sometime around 2009. All I remember is that he was one of the top dogs at Google. During the summit he said something profound that it stuck in my head to this day.

He said the role of a company CEO is not to just to ensure that a company is making huge profits but more importantly to anticipate how the future will affect the present and adapt swiftly and smartly. That message always rings true when I see a ‘traditional’ business being threatened by a new one or a new way of doing things.

Besides the bribery scandal that has hit the Kenyan judiciary; the biggest story from the region’s biggest economy has been the attack on Uber taxi operators by the traditional taxi operators if I can call them that. Uber runs on a mobile app that allows you to submit a trip request and a nearby Uber driver responds. 

Uber was started in 2009. It is 2016 and the traditional cab operators in Nairobi are feeling the pressure and have decided to go rogue by luring the Uber drivers then thumping them or vandalising their cars. It is a turf war and the traditional cab fellows are threatening mass action that will ‘shut down’ Nairobi.

What the traditional cab guys failed to do is to adapt to the ever changing environment so that they don’t become obsolete. It is 2016 and if you still want to do business the same way you were doing it in 2009 when smart phones were only in the hands of a few rich old men and women who only used them for calling and SMS, then I really pity you.

In 2016, power is literally in people’s hands. We now carry around smartphones and have data plans that make us almost invincible. We can order for food, make bank transactions, scan documents and send them to people miles away before seeing reminders on when our next flight is due and how the weather is like in the city we are flying to.

Disruption is the buzzword everywhere in business today. Young aggressive people all over the world now spend their time trying to figure out how to provide services more efficiently and thus kick out the older non-adaptive laggards. I am sure you know of food distributing companies that do not even cook a single meal, or that Uber owns no cabs just like AirBnB owns now hotels.

Ladies and gentlemen, the future is coming at us at a much faster rate and so the pace at which we should be changing our attitudes needs to be enhanced. Failure to adapt to new realities always leaves one with tougher lessons to deal with. Kodak enjoyed its days at the peak of the photography table until it was swept into irrelevance by the advent of digital photography. Interestingly they had researched about the magic of digital photography but were hesitant to make the move because well, they were still enjoying their (wait for it) – Kodak moment.

The tourism industry in East Africa is also undergoing its own moment of truth. The spate of terror attacks in Kenya drove away the tourists leaving operators all over the region staring at empty hotel beds and shrinking bank balances. The mistake has been that their understanding of a tourist has been limited to that person from Europe, America or Asia.

Some of the well-to-do locals revenged by flying out to South Africa, Mauritius and the United Arab Emirates for their holidays. Hoteliers and other tourism operators are now waking up to the reality that domestic tourism is something they should not have overlooked at all. The potential here is immense.

Some of the operators are just like the old school Nairobi taxi drivers, unsure of how to deal with new realities. In this case, many tourism operators are struggling to change their attitude towards the domestic tourist. Few of them have the skills to woo the domestic tourist because they have spent years in the business with a mindset locked at only the foreign tourist.

Luckily, the East African Tourism Platform is around to help guide the private tourism players as well as government down the road of attitude change aimed at seeing a rise in intra- and inter-regional tourism. It all starts with a flexible mind that embraces change instead of fighting it. It is time to adapt or die.


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