Technology Uber alles

Makhosazana Zwane-Siguqa the Head of Content at WeChat - Africa. Picture: Mduduzi Ndzingi

In an economy such as ours, which is characterised by unemployment, jobs are not only a means of making a livelihood. For many, simply having a job can mean the difference between life and death. To work is to live, we often say.

It therefore comes as no surprise that metered-taxi owners and drivers took to the streets this week to protest against what they perceive to be Uber’s “unfair advantage” and “unlawfulness”, as it does not fall within any regulated public transport category. They want it regulated or, better yet, banned.

Those in favour of Uber say legislators must update laws and regulations – mainly the National Land Transport Act of 2009 – to accommodate this service.

The issue of unemployment and scarce economic opportunities should remain the priority on government’s agenda.

It must, however, also be noted that it is in the interests of government and its citizens to update current policies to advance technological innovation. Technology and innovation are the answers to many of Africa’s challenges, starting with unemployment.

By its own definition, Uber is a “transport-on-demand service”. Founded in 2009 in the US, the service has become one of the most talked about in the technology sector that is operating internationally.

In fact, since it has become successful, many industries consider the company an example of innovation worth emulating.

Uber is also what we refer to as a “status quo disrupter”. Before Uber, there was nothing like it. Its journey will be recorded as a game-changer.

Think of it as another Facebook or Twitter. We never saw them coming either. Loop that into how both communication services have changed the media and social-commentary landscape, and it becomes clear why our legislators need to heed the wake-up call – fast.

It is true that regulators aren’t likely to keep up with technology. It develops at an exponential rate.

This is also not another “South African situation”. It isn’t unique to us and we must not think we can own this resistance.

Internationally, Uber has faced similar opposition to it that has resulted in prohibitive laws and policies being used against it.

In Spain and Germany, injunctions were issued against Uber. In Delhi, India, all app-based transport services were banned in an effort to protect the local taxi industry.

However, in some major American cities such as Portland, local authorities have been able to adjust bylaws to allow Uber to operate.

This came after negotiations between the parties and a public-participation process.

Now both Uber and its regional competitor, Lyft, can operate in Portland, in addition to many other places worldwide.

What does this tell us?

Well, for starters, technological innovation can create employment. But the law must be in gear for it to take off.

Closer to home, in Kenya, mobile money-transfer service Mpesa is an exemplary African case study.

After its launch, local banks lobbied to have it scrapped because the country’s banking laws did not provide for a regulatory framework for nonbanking services.

Fast-forward to today, and Mpesa is a leading money-transfer service used by the unbanked and banked alike.

Regulations are important. They can protect industries and their labour force. However, in a time where we speak of “business unusual” and “disruptive innovation”, it is clear that unless regulators innovate their regulations, the modus operandi for many new businesses will be one marred with frustration, delays in implementation and a disempowered citizenry.

We all need to commute in the most convenient, accessible and affordable way – and Uber provides this for many people.

Technological innovation, and even automation, needn’t be an enemy to existing industries. In fact, these developments will help promote knowledge sharing and efficiencies in labour output – thus increasing productivity and skills.

To get to that point, we need the kind of regulations that are innovative and open for broader participation beyond the traditional scope.

Google is already testing autonomous cars. What shall we say to that once it hits the transport industry?