Could Uber Be A Catalyst For Intra-Africa Trade?

On Thursday morning I woke to the news that Uber, an innovative app for calling a taxi used in over 200 cities, had raised $1,2 billion in funding whilst the holding company is now valued at a remarkable $40 billion. In the ensuing conversations about the mammoth valuation with a number of people I came across an interesting article about Uber’s future plans.

“CEO Travis Kalanick isn’t content for his company to remain a car-hailing app. He plans to move into urban logistics and shipping, doing everything from delivering food to transporting supplies.”

These two lines got me thinking, what could this mean for Africa? In recent years much has been said about how Africa is rising, a colloquial term for the latest wave of, depending on your point of view, international investment, colonialism, exploitation or development. What is not in dispute though is African countries lack of participation in the Africa Rising narrative whilst its benefits to ordinary people are hotly contested. One way to deepen the benefits to ordinary Africans put forward has been intra-Africa trade. A 2013 UNCTAD report on this states:

“Over the period from 2007 to 2011, the average share of intra-African exports in total merchandise exports in Africa was 11 per cent compared with 50 per cent in developing Asia, 21 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 70 per cent in Europe. Furthermore, available evidence indicates that the continent’s actual level of trade is also below potential, given its level of development and factor endowments.”

Whilst as Africans we have many factors going against us, not unlike other developing regions, I believe the most significant are of our own creation so can also be solved by ourselves. Trade amongst ourselves is the answer, a key component to making this a reality is access to markets and this is where the Uber link comes in. In a Top 20 Exporters of Containerized Cargo, 2009 and 2010 report Africa did not feature, let alone any individual country, however, in a Top 20 Importers of Containerized Cargo, 2009 and 2010 Western Africa ranked eleventh.

Considering that shipping is the best way to move bulk goods around the world and Africa has an extensive coastline under serviced by ports and continental shipping, it seems a no-brainer that cheap access to ships to ply these routes would drastically change intra-continental trade. In the fallout from the 2008 global recession the international shipping liner industry saw a number of players liquidated due to the fall in business. Among these were Greek and Portuguese liners that were either sold or are yet to recover. Africa on the other hand, has no merchant navy of any significance, do you see it now? No? Let me explain.

Uber is a platform whereby people can use their cars as taxis by registering with Uber and paying a commission on every fare directed to them. Now apply this to the African shipping industry and suddenly you have access to hundreds of ships ready to carry goods from Cape Town to Sharm El Sheikh. The same could apply for cranes, oil-rigs and just about anything you can move from port to port. Beyond the ports the same could apply for inland movement of goods along roads and rivers, rapidly accelerating access to markets and resources.

If a the ships are there then industry would have no reason not to produce, trade will entirely be up to the market. I am not a shipping expert so if there are any out there reading this, what are your thoughts?

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