(Corrects to make clear Uber is based in Silicon Valley, paragraph 3)
* Nigerians fret about kidnapping when hailing cabs
* Easy Taxi uses GPS to track drivers nearby
* Waiting times reduced in awful Lagos traffic
* Firm expands to Abuja, Ghana, Kenya
By Tim Cocks
LAGOS, Jan 23 (Reuters) - In Nigeria, one of the world’s worst countries for kidnapping, getting in the wrong cab could end up costing you or your family a lot more than the agreed taxi fare.
Many people have a “taxi guy” whom they trust to avoid this risk. But what if he’s on the other side of a notoriously traffic-throttled city like Lagos just when you need him?
It was a clear gap in the market for Easy Taxi, which like Silicon Valley’s Uber uses a smartphone app and GPS technology to provide taxi services by linking up customers with a trusted driver who is nearby.
In Nigeria, Easy Taxi only recruits existing taxis, but ones that are carefully vetted with all their documents in order. Many won’t pass the test.
A spike in kidnapping of well-to-do Nigerians and expatriates in Lagos in late 2012 and early 2013 made a lot of people wary of flagging down unknown cabs. Nigerians dubbed them “one chance”, denoting the small but terrifying risk.
According to consultancy Control Risks, Nigeria ranked third behind India and Mexico for recorded kidnaps-for-ransom in 2013, though last year it had been pushed down to fifth place by Iraq and Pakistan.
“People were being kidnapped in taxis, in public buses, so there was a big fear for safety,” Easy Taxi Nigeria’s Managing Director Bankole Cardoso told Reuters.
Yet almost everyone with a trusted taxi guy has had the same experience. He’ll be there in 20 minutes, he says, before setting off into what Nigerians call a go-slow, a traffic jam, crawling through lanes of hooting yellow buses and rickshaws.
He eventually shows up an hour later, after multiple calls and estimated arrival time changes, to find a frustrated passenger.
“We have a GPS tracker, so when a driver tells you ‘I’ll be there in five minutes’, you can actually see where he is on the map,” Cardoso, 26, said.
Easy Taxi Nigeria, owned by South African mobile operator MTN, German start-up incubator Rocket Internet and Swedish technology firm Millicom, uses an app to locate one of hundreds of taxis closest to the user.
Easy Taxi was founded in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, pioneering online taxi services in Latin America and the brand has now spread to 33 countries around the world.
It fits into Rocket Internet’s strategy of taking successful e-commerce start-up models and launching them in regions such as Africa, Latin America, Russia and parts of Asia.
The firm launched in Nigeria in 2013 in its rambunctious commercial hub Lagos, home to 21 million people. It has since spread to the capital Abuja and gets a few hundred customers a day, Cardoso said.
Easy Taxi has also started services in two other sub-Saharan African countries, Ghana and Kenya.
It has competitors in Nigeria, notably local firm Afrocab, India’s Taxipixi and Australian start-up Saytaxi.
The Easy Taxi app has proved popular with women and those travelling at night. A new service tailored for corporate clients has already signed up names such as MTN and Samsung.
Vivian Nwakah, director of a renewable energy start-up and an American of Nigerian descent, moved to Nigeria in 2013. She didn’t have a car and needed to find a reliable way to travel.
“What I liked is that there was someone that knew that I was in that car ... and if I had a problem with that driver, they would know,” she said. “The safety aspect was what was really important to me.”
The firm had to give smartphones to drivers in the start-up phase. Now, drivers arrive armed with phones seeking work.
Cardoso declined to comment on revenues, but said the company plans to expand into other Nigerians cities soon.
With its colourful plastic chairs, the open plan floor that Easy Taxi shares with four other young Internet companies, also incubated by Rocket Internet, has the buzz of a tech start-up.
The firm has encountered the challenges that many businesses face in Nigeria, such as extortion from well-connected people who want a piece of the pie without doing any of the work.
A man with connections to the state government last May told them what they were doing was illegal under new regulations, but they could get around them if they used his platform for their app and he collected a share of the money.
They had to disappoint him, after which he told him Easy Taxi would soon shut down. Cardoso has heard nothing since. (Editing by Ed Cropley and David Clarke)