Uganda’s ‘taxi divas’ rise from COVID-19’s economic gloom

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KAMPALA, Uganda – The women struggled with each other in the car. The driver tugged to grip her neck a little looser, then turned to elbow her assailant in the backseat. She threw open the door to let her escape and ended the simulated attack.

“This one is too strong for me,” said the attacker, smiling and shaking his head. Then it was another woman’s turn to prepare drivers for Uganda’s new all-female ride service, Diva Taxi.

The taxi service, conceived by a local woman who lost her logistics job at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, was launched in June and has recruited more than 70 drivers. They range from college students to mothers hoping to make good use of their used Toyotas.

“It started as a joke, supported by close friends and family, but eventually the idea was picked up,” said company spokeswoman Rebecca Makyeli. ‘They said,’ Why not? As ladies, you know that we can no longer kill on the outside on Instagram, so why not kill like divas with a purpose? So we called it Diva Taxi. “

It is uncommon to find female taxi drivers in Uganda, a socially conservative East African country where most women work on farms or in the informal sector.

Diva Taxi believes that countless women are looking for jobs at a time of dire economic need. The International Labor Organization has said that employment for women in developing countries is likely to be hit harder than those for men during the pandemic.

“I have to say that I have been personally affected by COVID,” said Gillian Kobusingye, founder of Diva Taxi.

She was a regular traveler and found herself grounded indefinitely when authorities imposed movement restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. For weeks, even taxis were not authorized to operate in Uganda.

Still, Kobusingye felt optimistic. “Despite whatever circumstances in the world, it will take something to reach someone … And how does that happen? By transport, ”she said.

She believed that a woman who wanted to become a driver would probably want this opportunity more than any man. And she supported women to be more reliable.

“Our ladies are incredibly hardworking, very motivated, and I love their sense of pride in doing this job,” she said. “They do it with one heart compared to other people, and that’s the difference we have from our competitors.”

Some customers, including men, agree.

“The divas are always on time,” said Kampala-based auditor Jemimah Bamwebaze, a regular user. She also feels safer “being driven by a fellow woman”.

A prospective driver must have a car in good working order and a smartphone equipped with the mobile app that customers are using, along with a valid driver’s license and a certificate of good conduct issued by Interpol.

With Diva Taxi, 85% of the proceeds from a ride will go to the driver, remarkably low in Uganda, but part of a plan to expand the market, Makyeli said.

Driver Donna Ochen, a FedEx accountant on leave in March who takes care of three children, said she had “done nothing” at home when she saw a Diva Taxi employee talk on television about opportunities for women. With the permission of her skeptical husband, she contacted the company and was recruited.

“I decided to get started because it would be an opportunity for me to serve, earn and support my family,” said Ochen. And “it would allow me to do something for myself instead of sitting.”

Another driver, student Tracy Abola, said her mother, a teacher, has been out of work since the schools closed in March. Abola was driving a Toyota in 1998 “to keep up appearances with friends” until she discovered she could make money with Diva Taxi.

“So I decided to do something so that I can help a little at home too,” she said.

The Diva Taxi app has been downloaded at least 500 times, and each of the company’s 72 drivers makes an average of 30 trips per week, Makyeli said. The company expects to have 2,000 active users by the end of this year, a modest target in a city of more than 3 million people where taxis and passenger motorcycles are the primary means of transport for the working class.

Despite the safety training – every driver also receives a can of pepper spray – safety remains a concern.

Ochen said she only rides during the day “so as not to get into awkward situations”, including through drunk groups.

Although she hopes to return to her job as an accountant, she plans to remain a Diva Taxi driver for as long as possible.

“We love what we do and it’s a lot of fun,” said founder Kobusingye, an occasional driver himself. “I can’t wait to partner with any woman who is willing to be a part of Diva Taxi.”