Welcome to Grimaland, @Uber !

Trafic scene from Casablanca, photo via www.marruecosdigital.net

Trafic scene from Casablanca, all the red cars and some of the white ones are taxis. Photo via www.marruecosdigital.net

It is now official, Uber is coming to Casablanca, Morocco, and hiring the staff. The company is on file under trade registrer number 47325 in Rabat.

If you are not familiar with Uber, it is a ride-sharing service that started in San Francisco in 2010. Based on a mobile application, it connects passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire while offering them the usual options one could expect from mobile apps, like in this case sending a request for a vehicle and tracking its location and of course handling the payment trough the app instead of cash payment.

Uber, like closer services such as Lyft are considered as a part of the so-called Sharing Economy, where many entry barriers are being suppressed, enabling one to earn money with his flat through Airbnb for a Week End while traveling and finding cheaper and better accommodation than offered by usual hostelry, share his car with Blablacar and reduce his travel cost and so on.

All over the world, Uber is disrupting the urban transportation industry and breaking the monopoly of traditional taxis. I have been following the stories of Uber international expansion and witnessed closely its arrival in Paris and Zurich but I find its plan to go to Casablanca an interesting case to follow. In Paris, Uber’s arrival in 2012 lead to confrontations and strikes that taxi drivers organised earlier this year with reported cases of violence. In Switzerland, where the culture is far much less ‘striky’ than France, instead of vain confrontation big players of transportation like taxis and the Federal Railway Company are already talking about partnering with Uber.

If the recurrent arguments against Uber orbite around the protection of Taxi professionals who pay for their licences, the case in Morocco is much more complicated: One does not simply acquire a Taxi licence because he is a taxi professional and fulfils the requirements. Instead he has to rent the licence from people who had been offered this licence by authorities or inherited it from parents, this licence cannot be obtained trough other channels. Here lies one of the core elements of the moroccan economic rent that Uber has to cope with: the so-called Grima, not the Rolex retailer in Melbourne, but the popular name given to the licence as defined by a decree from 1963. To the resistance of taxi drivers one should expect the resistance of the licence holders, I even expect the latter to be tougher because for taxi drivers being an Uber-er might probably be more interesting than sharing the earnings with the licence holder.

Moreover, Moroccan legislation and practice is much tougher than european one when dealing with informal transportation, I have friends who had been fined during an anti-informal transportation campaign in a rural route (from Mediouana to Casablanca) just because they had been spotted by policemen stoping on their way to work and taking other colleagues with them to casablanca . They were fined for illegal commercial transportation while the passengers were their colleagues on their common way to work at Casablanca in an evident non-profit car-sharing experience.

If Uber has solutions to transform confrontation to collaboration like UberTaxi, and if the products UberLux and UberSuv would not be hard to establish in Morocco as a luxury service to airports and VIP venues or for small groups transport, establishing UberBlack -the original product of Uber- and UberX -the chapter of Uber that allows non-professional drivers to shuttle passengers in their own personal cars-  would be harder. The latter has just been declared illegal by the mayor of Montreal in Canada.

To all the previous elements and supposing a smooth collaboration with local taxi drivers and their licence owners, one should add that the challenge for UberTaxi is to set a community of taxi drivers who would accept abandoning cash payment, in a country where cash is the most privileged payment solution for small amounts. Those drivers will also accept having traceable amounts of earning, another cultural challenge. For this, Uber can take inspirations from others who succeeded in adapting to local realities like Jumia (from Rocket Internet) which enabled cash payment at-delivery to secure its place in the Moroccan eCommerce market, or the local application Taxiii which is already collaborating with taxis. Other challenge for Uber is to enter a market where taxis are a relatively low cost solution and where it would be hard for both UberTaxi of UberX to provide cheaper prices.

But the path for Uber is also full of opportunities, the rise of smart phone users, the quality of service in taxis, the numerous cases of law infringements like taxis refusing to take passengers, and the pain to get one in peak hours are all rooms for improvement that a smart-phone based solution can benefit from.