Technology and training can bring safe roads and better jobs to Africa

Updated: May 5

By Jessica Osborn

This post was originally published in All Africa



Since the Lagos state government's ban on motorcycle taxis (known as okadas) took effect early last month, commuters having to resort to the city's overwhelmed public transportation options have been spending hours in "go-slow", the traffic jams which characterise the infamously congested city. It's not just passengers that have been left stranded. Drivers have seen their income disappear overnight and have taken to the streets to urge the government to reconsider the terms of the ban and save their jobs.


Lagos state government cited safety concerns as justification for the ban (although the exact extent of the problem seems to be unclear). However, in recent years, ride-hailing start-ups in Lagos have made security and safety a top priority, and one of the key aspects upon which they compete for customers. In five years, start-up Max.NG reports that it has completed more than two million trips without a single fatality, and an accident rate of 0.005%. Competitors Gokada and ORide report similarly low accident rates.


Ride hailing companies have achieved this by introducing a range of practical measures to keep riders and passengers safer, including DOT-approved helmets; bluetooth headsets for drivers; push notifications about road closures, changes to one-way systems and general safety in particular areas; regular bike maintenance; and reminders about speed limits.


But it's training that drivers themselves are saying makes the most difference. The acceptance rate to become a Max.NG driver is just 40%. Potential candidates are taken through rigorous theoretical and practical training, including modules tailored to the specialities of Lagos riding, such as how to manoeuvre in heavy traffic.

Those who don't come up to standard don't make the cut. Gokada has partnered with the largest defensive driving academy in the world to help them deliver world-class, face-to-face driver training at scale, with ongoing skilling through a train-the-trainer model. GPS tracking enables companies to execute a zero tolerance policy on safety by removing riders flouting training guidance and traffic rules from their platform immediately.


The blanket ban of okadas in Lagos risks overlooking these training-based safety benefits. This is the crux of the #regulatenotban appeal put forward by riders and ride-hailing companies, who are asking the government not to lift the ban, but introduce effective regulation which prioritises road safety and recognises the value they bring to it. Continuing with an outright ban precludes a potential opportunity to make roads safer, build skills and boost jobs for low income workers; already Gokada has laid off 70% of its workers as it pivots to become a courier service in light of the ban.


Max.NG alone has 2,200 drivers earning a living through their platform and the company claims to have provided 73,000 indirect jobs. Adetayo Bamiduro, Co-Founder and CEO, says rider average monthly income is over three times that of their peers in the informal sector, and the company offers additional benefits such as health and accident insurance, and lease-to-own financing to help drivers purchase their own bikes.


Max.NG, Gokada and ORide are just three of over 275 marketplace platforms in Africa, linking workers to customers across many sectors, from taxis and couriers to trades and beauty services. Platforms play an increasingly important role in the future of work in Africa, with some experts estimating that by 2030, they may be a source of income for as many as 88 million young workers in Africa alone.


Research we at Caribou Digital launched last month showed that many of these platforms, just like the motorbike ride-hailing companies of Lagos, are investing in training entrepreneurs and workers using their sites. Companies provide this training because they have to; without it many workers lack the skills they need to engage with online marketplaces at a level that generates sufficient transactions, with high enough service quality, for the companies to survive.


There is a win for workers as well: the training enables them to maximise their income from platforms. But platforms are not just teaching the competencies needed to navigate the site itself. They are also training in general digital literacy, financial literacy, vocational training, and even soft skills. These skills are transferable and portable beyond the platform and have lifelong value, and could therefore be transformative to worker livelihoods and help bridge the continent's skills gap.


This is not to say that platforms are unproblematic. There is work to do to ensure that all platforms promote worker dignity, privacy protection, agency and ensure that workers receive a fair proportion of the value generated by these marketplaces. It also is not to say that the skilling offered by these companies can replace that provided by traditional educational institutions.


But platform-led upskilling plays an increasingly important role in the education and training landscape, and could help to make digital economies more inclusive. Banning rather than regulating platforms who are helping to upskill and professionalise workers and bring them into the formal economy may overlook many of the potential benefits. Hopefully the talks between the Lagos government and affected ride hailing companies will lead to resolution that prioritises both safety and opportunities for workers.


Jessica Osborn is an advisor at Caribou Digital, a research firm dedicated to building inclusive and ethical digital economies.

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