There’s no need to copy Sil­i­con Val­ley ten­den­cies

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Andile Ma­suku

THE RE­CENT fir­ing of ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Daudi Were, at Ushahidi – the much-lauded Kenyan cri­sis-map­ping soft­ware non-profit com­pany – fol­low­ing se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment coming to light, has demon­strated that Africa’s emerg­ing start-up scene is not im­mune to ac­quir­ing wholly un­de­sir­able Sil­i­con Val­ley ten­den­cies.

A grow­ing sex­ism and sex­ual ha­rass­ment list of shame that now in­cludes in­ter­na­tional heavy hit­ters like Uber’s founder and for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive Travis Kalan­ick, 500 Star­tups founder Dave McClure and even the leg­endary ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Chris Sacca, has re­port­edly lead to one of the US’s most in­flu­en­tial start-up in­cu­ba­tors-come-ven­ture cap­i­tal funds, Y Com­bi­na­tor, e-mail­ing an on­line whis­tle-blow­ing form to 3 500 en­trepreneurs, to en­cour­age them to re­port in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual con­duct by ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists.

I be­lieve that by fail­ing to act de­ci­sively months ago when ev­i­dence im­pli­cat­ing Were was brought for­ward by the al­leged vic­tim, An­gela Kabari, Ushahidi’s di­rec­tors be­trayed their will­ing­ness to nor­malise the preva­lence of sex­ual mis­con­duct by pow­er­ful men who, no doubt, be­lieve their in­flu­en­tial po­si­tions in the tech in­dus­try ren­der them un­touch­able.

Mean­while, there is ar­guably a link be­tween the sex­ist, profit-ob­sessed, win­ner-takes-all cul­ture en­cour­aged by many in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions within Amer­ica’s glitzy start-up in­vest­ment scene and the seem­ingly un­re­lated push-back against Uber in coun­tries like South Africa, which, while far-re­moved from Sil­i­con Val­ley, is no doubt im­pacted by its pro­cliv­i­ties.

This dy­namic might, to some ex­tent, ex­plain why some world-lead­ing tech giants like IBM, Face­book and Google – who would rather not be as­so­ci­ated with Sil­i­con Val­ley’s toxic vibes – go to great lengths to pro­mote their pro-fe­male as­pi­ra­tions, while min­imis­ing their com­mit­ment to chas­ing raw cap­i­tal­ist am­bi­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to a rul­ing made by South Africa’s Com­mis­sion for Con­cil­i­a­tion, Me­di­a­tion and Ar­bi­tra­tion (CCMA) in July 2017, an em­ployer-em­ployee re­la­tion­ship does, in fact, ex­ist be­tween Uber and driver-part­ners. This dec­la­ra­tion came in the wake of Uber be­ing dragged to the CCMA sev­eral months ago by seven driver-part­ners who al­leged that they were un­fairly de­ac­ti­vated by the ser­vice.

The ride-hail­ing ser­vice has long main­tained that it is sim­ply a vir­tual mar­ket­place that con­nects driv­ers and pas­sen­gers and not an em­ployer – cit­ing the fact that Uber doesn’t own cars or have driv­ers on their pay­roll.

Since CCMA com­mis­sioner Win­nie Everett ruled in this mat­ter, Uber South Africa has been at pains to “clar­ify” that the de­ter­mi­na­tion only ap­plies to the seven in­di­vid­ual driv­ers who acted against them, and not to all of the 2 500 odd driver-part­ners they cur­rently “con­tract” across the coun­try.

No win yet

Uber South Africa has since ap­proached the na­tion’s Labour Court to have the CCMA’s rul­ing set aside. In a state­ment, Uber as­sured the pub­lic that this le­gal mat­ter was a long way away from be­ing re­solved and that nei­ther side – pre­sum­ably Uber on one and the seven feud­ing driv­ers on the other – is in any po­si­tion to call a win just yet.

As far as I’m con­cerned, Uber’s po­si­tion is prob­lem­atic, be­cause it be­trays the com­pany’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with achiev­ing com­plete and ut­ter dom­i­na­tion – not just in South Africa, but around the world.

Call me an ide­al­ist, but surely the new shar­ing econ­omy trend that Uber is surf­ing shouldn’t be about big tech play­ers win­ning at every­one else’s ex­pense. We should all be on the same side – back­ing in­clu­sive progress.

Dis­claimer: I am a fre­quent user of Uber’s ser­vices, and if there’s any­one hop­ing that the com­pany gets its cul­tural is­sues sorted out so that it can fo­cus on win­ning over all, or at least most, of the stake­hold­ers cur­rently ag­grieved by them, it’s me.

Sim­i­larly, I’m root­ing for so­ci­ety at large to com­mit to find­ing ways to har­ness the on-de­mand mar­ket­place trend to pro­duce a win-win sit­u­a­tion for every­body. Cer­tainly, as the poster child for the new shar­ing econ­omy, Uber should be lead­ing the way in help­ing the world es­tab­lish how that can hap­pen.

The prob­lem is, up un­til he re­cently stepped down as the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Travis Kalan­ick’s less-than-el­e­gant ap­proach to pur­su­ing suc­cess at Uber was to stomp into as many mar­kets all over the world, in­tent on dis­rup­tion and dom­i­nance by any means nec­es­sary. That’s cre­ated a trou­ble­some sce­nario in which Uber’s sus­tained growth and push to­wards prof­itabil­ity seems to have to hap­pen at the ex­pense of any­one, and in­deed, any­thing that stands in the tech gi­ant’s way.

Musa Kalenga is a Zam­bian dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing maven based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He was for­merly a client part­ner at Face­book Africa and is cur­rently the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a new adtech ven­ture he co-founded called Mi­cro­tis­ing.

As a fre­quent co-host on the African Tech Round-up pod­cast, Kalenga has of­ten ex­pressed his dis­con­tent­ment with Uber’s prob­lem­atic cul­tural is­sues and high­lighted how Kalan­ick’s nox­ious lead­er­ship style has neg­a­tively im­pacted the com­pany’s prospects on the con­ti­nent.

‘Fun­da­men­tal il­le­gal­ity’

In a re­cent episode of the pro­gramme, Kalenga cited a Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view ar­ti­cle by Ben­jamin Edel­man en­ti­tled Uber Can’t Be Fixed – It’s Time for Reg­u­la­tors to Shut It Down. In the piece, Edel­man – who strikes me as a zeal­ous Marx­ist – makes a case for what he calls Uber’s “fun­da­men­tal il­le­gal­ity”.

Now, while nei­ther Kalenga and I sub­scribe to the ex­treme view that Uber should be shut­tered, one can’t ig­nore how in many re­spects, the com­pany’s suc­cess has been pred­i­cated on a will­ing­ness to bla­tantly flout reg­u­la­tions by launch­ing first and ask­ing ques­tions later.

The in­con­ve­nient truth for Uber’s de­trac­tors, how­ever, is that their mis­sion would be a non-is­sue if mar­kets hadn’t so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally bought into the com­pany’s fairly at­trac­tive value propo­si­tion.

While I, along with mil­lions of others around the world, have come to ap­pre­ci­ate the con­ve­nience that Uber has brought into our lives, I’m not blind to their short­com­ings as an or­gan­i­sa­tion.

It would seem that on one end of the spec­trum lies Uber and its un­healthy ob­ses­sion with achiev­ing ubiq­uity and prof­itabil­ity. At the other end, stand anti-Uber ac­tivists who feel that on-de­mand plat­form poster chil­dren like Uber and Airbnb not only nor­malise a cul­ture of du­bi­ous com­mer­cial in­ge­nu­ity – read il­le­gal­ity – but also up­end liveli­hoods with lit­tle or no thought to how their in­no­va­tions might neg­a­tively im­pact so­ci­ety.

Then, some­where in the mid­dle of that con­tin­uum we find Uber driver-part­ners, who, while con­tent to make a de­cent liv­ing us­ing the firm’s plat­form, are jus­ti­fi­ably dis­sat­is­fied with the com­pany’s ten­dency to keep them at arms length when­ever it suits them – not least when they have sought re­lief from vi­o­lent mem­bers of the tra­di­tional me­tered taxi com­mu­nity.

I’m in no po­si­tion to ques­tion the mo­tives of the seven driv­ers who hauled Uber to the CCMA for repa­ra­tions, but I’m struck by the irony of how their choice to pur­sue their own wel­fare (they might well ar­gue that they are act­ing for the greater good of their com­mu­nity) by mount­ing a le­gal at­tack on the ride-shar­ing plat­form, might neg­a­tively com­pro­mise their fu­ture prospects to earn a liv­ing driv­ing for Uber or in­deed any other ride-hail­ing plat­form.

Be­cause if the Labour Court holds up the CCMA’s de­ci­sion and Uber is forced to as­sume the burden of be­ing an em­ployer and a pub­lic trans­port ser­vice provider in terms of South African law, that will likely ir­repara­bly im­pact the sus­tain­abil­ity of their busi­ness model.

That could then pave the way for Trans­port Min­is­ter Joe Maswan­ganyi to follow through on threats to force Uber driv­ers to ap­ply for pub­lic trans­port li­cences, and that would re­sult in Uber driv­ers be­ing required to op­er­ate in pre-al­lo­cated ge­o­graphic zones.

My frus­tra­tion is that the folks at Uber are clearly in it for them­selves, as are the com­pany’s driver-part­ners – seven of whom are no doubt in full self-preser­va­tion mode at the mo­ment.

As for the tra­di­tional taxi in­dus­try? Well, the streets can tes­tify to how they’ve been let­ting sjam­boks and fire light­ing cer­e­monies re­in­force their self-in­ter­est. Sadly, it ap­pears that none of the afore­men­tioned par­ties are com­mit­ted to back­ing an in­clu­sive agenda that puts so­ci­ety’s best in­ter­ests first.

Andile Ma­suku is a broad­caster and en­tre­pre­neur based in Johannesburg. He is the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at AfricanTechRoundup.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ma­sukuAndile and The African Tech Round-up @african­roundup.

PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Dave McClure (left), the chief ex­ec­u­tive and founder of 500 Star­tups and Travis Kalan­ick, the co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Uber, are on a grow­ing sex­ism and sex­ual har­rass­ment list of shame.

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