Concorde Hotel, located near Lancha, is crowded in the late-hours of the night. That is when Kebrom Abera starts his first shift of the day. The ten-year veteran taxi driver operates an ever-aging Russian-made automobile, painted white & dark blue. Like many of his colleagues, he is watching the changes of his industry with deep concern and interest. Complying with a new government regulation, he has joined a union - the 'Abro Adege' Association - and remains skeptical of the new two-tier regulated taxi-system and he is certain it is designed-to-fail.
Unlike his decades-old Lada, he does not think the newly imported Lifan-taxis will be compatible on the often brutal and crowded streets of Addis for a start. His many years of driving taxis have given him a rich glimpse of the industry inside-out. For him, the new taxis are like the Higer buses that the government imported a decade ago from China, with all their attractive outer features, a noticeable many ended up with mechanical problems, he tells Fortune. He thinks independent taxis should remain the norm as they are not bound by a slew of regulations he believes are created to doom any business.
In Merkato, Africa's biggest open market is where Henok operates his Higer bus daily. He has been driving the bus for six years and is convinced his bus will outlive any commercial automobile in Ethiopia. The reason for the deterioration of some of the Higers buses, he explained to Fortune, is results of careless driving that only contributed to the stereotypes of the bus that he is convinced is undeserved.
The reform of the taxi industry has been a long time coming in Ethiopia.
By the time the business community presented the idea of modernizing the taxi industry to former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the government was beginning to recognize the old taxis were no-longer safe, convenient, looked old and not reflective of the government's agenda to change the image of the country. To many, the old blue & white taxis represented as battered image of the country as stuck in the past for a city attempting to transition to a modern and fresher city.
The first experiment with a new taxi system went bust as Sheger Meter Taxi, the original importer of 25 taxis, failed to pay its loans to Zemen Bank and was forced to close down. The bank quickly took possession of the taxis and auctioned it to Adika Taxi Services Plc. a subsidiary of Adika Tour & Travel Plc, which swiftly updated the features of the taxis and installed meters inside each one. This essentially made it a pioneer of metered taxis in the country. Soon after, 26 associations were able to import 836 taxis duty free and follow in the footsteps of Adika.
According to the Federal Transport Authority, 54 companies have since imported 2700 more taxis.
Taxi driver Tewodros 'Teddy' Semaneh, went from driving the blue & white taxis and to driving Zay-Ride. "I see the values of the new technologies (in the newer taxis) and the fixed prices," he told Fortune. "There is no longer time wasted negotiating prices." To him, the reform is needed and will only make the job hassle-free and convenient for the driver and customer.
A slew of different types of cars are expected to arrive to the scene soon. Lifan and Avanza so-far dominate the market. Lucy Meter Taxi only uses Lifan and according to Antanah Kirilo, founder and general manager of Lucy meter taxi association, "The only difference between the two models are sizes, as Lifan can only carry four passengers while Avanta can hold up-to 7".
However, Yonas Mulate of Addis Meter Taxi Association disagrees. For him, "Avanza cars are made-in-Japan, are spacious with more than two AC's while the Lifan's are made in china with less durability and fewer seats."
Meter taxis are very new in Ethiopia and their benefits are not yet known and embraced by customers. The general assumption is, they are expensive and their prices are not open to negotiation as it is the custom in Ethiopia when deal-making.
For instance, Helen Tefera, who has never experienced the newer taxis, believes they are expensive and would never consider using them. She prefers to continue to take Higer buses and will use the blue & white taxis when Higer is not available or simply walk. "I do not usually use the blue taxis let alone the meter taxis are too expensive for a person that earns 4000 br a month", she reflected.
For frequent taxi passenger, Solomon Abera, the newer taxis are good options as they are comfortable, safe and their use of technology is what first attracted to them. He told Fortune, the only drawback is that they are stationed at hotels and are not accessible and visible as the blue & white taxis that are literally at every corner.
For auto mechanic Wondafrash Assefa, the Lifans have strong body parts yet their cooling systems are weak and they often have damaged compression system, and they over-heat but consume less fuel. He has yet to deal with any of the other cars.
To an Addis Abeba population that heavily relies on modernized modes of transportation, the latest changes in the taxi industry are a welcome relief. The new changes have given better options for customers in a busy market that is still in need of more taxis and moods of affordable transportation.
The Ethiopian Federal Transport Authority (FTA) has declared that the blue and meter taxis will have equal access to all the software technologies, like Zay- ride, in order to keep the technology transfer equal for all. The agency also noted that most consumers are stuck on outdated notions of ideal vehicles for the Ethiopia market and roads. In addition, it was announced that fares on Avanza meter taxis is to be 13Br per Km while the Lifans are set at 10 Br per Km.
Thomas Kiros, a 52-year-old father of two and Zay-Lucy cab driver, was furious that his association was not consulted before the prices were announced. He regrets leaving Hibret Taxi Association. He heard about the price quotas by chance on the radio. Every month, he pays 7000 Br. a month for his vehicle to Berhan Bank and that, gases and vehicle maintenance costs him dearly in addition to the demands he has to meet for his and his family's basic necessities of life.
When he was driving the Blue & White taxi's, he explained, he was charging upwards of 70 Br from Global Hotel to Mesqel Square and to Kera, he would charge more, often negotiate his price instead of settle on the bare minimum that he is subjected to now. "How am I going to feed my children", he cried to Fortune.
Shemeles Tefera, echoes the resentment of his colleague. He thinks the current set-price for metered taxis that are comfortable and have ample space, do not reflect price inflation and a population that continues to see taxis as luxuries and instead choose to take cheaper over-crowded moods of transportation that can cost as low-as 2 Birr.
The Ethiopian taxi industry is facing its biggest challenge to date. The reforms that are taking place currently will affect all actors in the industry and there will be few winners and many losers. What will set each actor apart is how they navigate their way in the new reformed system and that will ultimately set each apart.