Kenyan cabbies complain: The Uber competition saga reaches East Africa

Uber Africa: Increased competitiveness not a boon for entrenched monopolies

new multi-part seriesContinuing our AAT multi-part series on innovation & antitrust we turn once again to the ubiquitous “Sharing Economy” we are witnessing not only in the United States and Europe but also on the African continent…

“The taxi industry is in the midst of a crisis. Once protected by a regulated monopoly of the commercial passenger motor vehicle transportation market, the industry now faces increasing competition from a new type of transportation service—ride-sharing. The emergence of companies like Uber, the most successful ride-sharing company, threatens to eliminate the taxi industry’s stronghold on the ground transportation market and possibly the industry itself.” (Erica Taschler, Institute for Consumer Antitrust Studies, in “A Crumbling Monopoly: The Rise of Uber and the Taxi Industry’s Struggle to Survive“)

April 14, 2015 Associated Press file photo, Nairobi, Kenya

Today, the Taxi Cab Association of Kenya announced protests against the “unfair competition” its members face from ride-sharing giant Uber, according to the organisation’s chairman, Josphat Olila.  This is no news for folks in London, Brussels, Hamburg, or Washington — places where the taxi-medallion-capped brethren of Nairobi’s cabbies have all long ago gone through the protest phase against the rising tide of the “new economy’s” novel way of hailing cars.  Examples abound, and all involve more or less refined antitrust arguments.

Andreas Stargard, an attorney with Africa competition advisors Primerio, sums it up as follows: “The pro-competitive notion of innovation-plus-price competition is perhaps best understood by looking at the views of two leading antitrust agencies, the FTC and the European Commission.   Both have articulated simple and sound arguments for striking the right balance between regulatory limits for the protection of passengers, as well as allowing innovative technologies to enhance the competitive landscape and thereby increasing transportation options for riders.  In antitrust law, more options usually equal better outcomes.

U.S.

Here is what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had to say in 2013 about the D.C. taxi commission’s ‘unfair competition’ argument against ride-sharing services:

“The staff comments recommend that DCTC avoid unwarranted regulatory restrictions on competition, and that any regulations should be no broader than necessary to address legitimate public safety and consumer protection concerns.  … [T]he comments recommend that DCTC allow for flexibility and experimentation and avoid unnecessarily limiting how consumers can obtain taxis.”

Crucially, the Kenyan cabbies’ argument that Uber should be banned is based on price competition from Uber’s lower fares.  One of the main tenets of competition law is: lower prices are good for consumers (in general), as long as service quality remains the same.  With Uber, quality not only maintains the status quo of smelly and difficult-to-hail cabs, but arguably enhances it (by knowing when and where your car arrives, quality control via Uber’s policies and check-ups, convenient electronic billing & dispute resolution, etc.).  Let’s go back to the FTC’s public comments and see their take:

“Competition and consumer protection naturally complement and mutually reinforce each other, to the benefit of consumers. Consumers benefit from market competition, which creates incentives for producers to be innovative and responsive to consumer preferences with respect to price, quality, and other product and service characteristics. As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the benefits of competition go beyond lower prices: ‘The assumption that competition is the best method of allocating resources in a free market recognizes that all elements of a bargain – quality, service, safety, and durability – and not just the immediate cost, are favorably affected by the free opportunity to select among alternative offers’.”

EU DG COMP

Former Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes would agree wholeheartedly with the above, and indeed said in 2014 that she was “outraged at the decision by a Brussels court to ban Uber.”  In her personal op-ed piece, published on the EU Commission’s web site under the catchy title “Crazy court decision to ban Uber in Brussels“, she poignantly had this to tell the Belgian Mobility Minister who signed off on the Uber ban:

“This decision is not about protecting or helping passengers – it’s about protecting a taxi cartel.  The relevant Brussels Regional Minister is Brigitte Grouwels. Her title is “Mobility Minister”.  Maybe it should be “anti-Mobility Minister”. She is even proud of the fact that she is stopping this innovation. It isn’t protecting jobs Madame, it is just annoying people!”

We wonder what would happen if Neelie Kroes were Kenyan government minister…

Kenya: Keep prices high and ‘foreign’ competition out?

The Kenyan Taxi Association does not see it that way, just like its D.C. counterpart did not some 3 years ago.  However, D.C.’s streets are still full of old-fashioned cabs, and Uber — while popular — is still far from blowing out the light shone by the once-prized cabbie medallions…

Still, the Kenyan association claims that between 4,000 and up to 15,000 taxi drivers face job extinction due to lower prices charged by Uber, which has been active in Nairobi since the beginning of 2015.  Again, the “lower price” argument is a red herring under even the most basic application of competition economics, which shows that innovation-based price competition is ultimately pro-competitive and good not only for the end consumer but also the industry’s development as a whole.

Sadly, antitrust law — even in a fairly developed competition-law jurisdiction like Kenya — does not always prevail (again, see the occidental examples of Brussels, Hamburg, London, or even Baltimore, where the cabbies ironically sued Uber in an antitrust lawsuit, alleging that the so-called ‘Surge Pricing’ mechanism amounts to per se illegal price-fixing…).

The Kenyan taxi-cab organisation not only claims that the livelihoods of its members are at stake, but also “questioned the protocols followed by the foreign investors behind Uber, saying they were not consulted before the service provider entered the market,” according to an article in the Kenyan Daily Nation.  The association’s spokesman is quoted as saying: “We have loans to service, families to feed, children to educate and other responsibilities to cater for and we are not ready to leave the transport industry to a foreigner and render [ourselves] jobless while we are in a democratic republic.”

So in the end, the ‘unfair taxi competition’ argument devolves into xenophobia and mistrust.  Sadder yet, Kenya’s Uber fight has now taken a violent turn: Yesterday, an Interior Ministry spokesman said that there had been reports of attacks on Uber drivers, which are being investigated.

AAT of course deplores the resort to violence and trusts that neither it nor the upcoming protests will impede the progress of competitiveness in Kenya, a country that otherwise prides itself on encouraging competition (see CNBC Africa video on “East African competitiveness”).  The sole glimmer of hope we see consists of the closing line of the Daily Nation piece, which notes that “[t]he drivers have also promised to come up with their own version of Uber to connect taxi drivers in the country.”  That is what innovation is all about: Uber innovates, others copy (be it Lyft or the Kenyan cabbies), and everyone is better off in the final analysis.

 

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