“Your next ride – Uber in emerging markets” – Jambu Palaniappan at #qznextbillion

I’m spending the day at Quartz’s event “The Next Billion”. Here are my notes from a session which featured Leo Mirani from Quartz interviewing Jambu Palaniappan, Uber’s GM for Eastern Europe, the Middle East & Africa.

Leo said that when he first encountered Uber, he thought it was “an indulgence” for the first world, but as it has spread to developing markets, it makes more sense to him.

Jambu said that their focus was on the spread between “what exists now” and “what Uber can provide”. So for cities like Cairo or Johannesburg, with a low baseline of traffic infrastructure Uber can, he said, contribute to faster growth than alternatives. The company, he said, provides economic opportunities for drivers, as well as a service for passengers. And it delivers a service that “is desperately needed in those cities.”

Leo asked whether people using it in Cairo are just ex-pats and business travellers – people who use it because they know it from London or Berlin and can use the same app and the same payment system.

In response he got a lengthy spiel about how Uber is transformative for cities. Jambu Palaniappan argued that cars are terribly inefficient – they spend most of their time parked outside your house or your office. He said that they are starting to see a transition from people choosing to purchase and own a car, and instead people simply use Uber all of the time.

This, he says, will have a compelling impact on how cities are built – “Imagine Cairo with half the cars it has today.”

He painted a very rosy picture of a future where people’s two hour commutes by public transport were all converted into 26-minute car rides, freeing up spare time to spend with their family, and – presumably – longer time in the office promoting GDP. What if you could “digitally match” routes, he said, so that four people are sharing one Uber ride, rather than being four individuals who own cars?

Uber, he claimed, has “a downstream effect on the city” – every one private hire vehicle is more efficient than one personally-owned car.

Now this all sounds lovely, but I do think it rather glosses over Uber’s economic motive. It wasn’t set up to make cities more efficient, it was set-up to more efficiently harvest the cash spent on travel in cities.

Leo asked how different is Uber in Johannesberg in Cairo or Warsaw?

Jambu said that “the basic principle of our business is the same and your experience would be similar – a car in five minutes.”

The company have local people on the ground in the 60 countries they operate in though, and the differentiation is about the physical infrastructure of the city or the profile of the drivers.

He then made a key point about digital innovation.

“Nothing is really sacred” he said. The nature of being a fast-moving tech company is you have to innovate to be successful.

For example in Nairobi they had to evolve how ETAs worked because of the different addressing system, or in Riyadh around lack of street names – so developed more landmark based navigation.

Another example was that he said there’s not one global payment solution that will solve all their problems, so in China they have integrated with a local payment platform

Leo raised the fact that there have been safety concerns about Uber. If something happens in some part of the world, he said, it impacts the business across the world.

Jambu Palaniappan made great play out of the fact that the company “learns from each of those examples” and tried to set them in the context of the company doing a million trips a day globally. “There is accountability in the system” – oftentimes you don’t get that accountability with previous transport infrastructue – for example Uber gives you a “share my ETA” feature, and a receipt with a car registration number and a map.

But I found myself rather unconvinced about genuinely how concerned Uber is for the cities it operates in and the people using their services. I thought Jambu Palaniappan was very slick on-stage, but I feel Uber could do with being a little bit more honest about the motivation behind their operations, rather than presenting themselves as some magic bullet to improve the economy, living standards and transport infrastructure in the cities it descends upon.

Read all of my posts about Quartz’s “The Next Billion”:
What makes video go viral in emerging markets?” – Cat Jones
Providing free ad-supported mobile internet access for the next billion” – Nathan Eagle
Inspiring computer hardware for young people in the developing world” – Yonatan Raz-Fridman

Your next ride – Uber in emerging markets” – Jambu Palaniappan
The VPN effect and the web’s missing billion” – Jason Mander