COTONOU: Getting around most towns and cities in West Africa often means an uncomfortable ride on public transport or haggling hard with a taxi driver.
Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, is no different and is famous for its thousands of “zemidjans”, the cheap motorbike-taxis that throng the city’s roads at rush hour.
But that is changing with the arrival of clean, comfortable, air-conditioned vehicles that can be ordered by a mobile phone app, WhatsApp or a freephone number.
Ivory Coast’s Africab and Soft Taxis Benin are both already operating in the city and were recently joined by Benin-Taxi, a public-private venture backed by the country’s government.
The project was launched in July with a fleet of 50 brand new small 4x4 vehicles.
Some 250 more will take to the streets by October, said Assan Seibou, the head of the Centre for Partnership and Expertise for Sustainable Development, which is behind the scheme.
But with fares at an average of 1,500 CFA francs per journey (Dh10), rival firms say they can’t compete.
“The costs are too low and it might be unfair competition” as it’s the state that accompanies Benin-Taxis, said one young driver for Soft Taxi after pocketing 3,000 CFA francs for taking a mother and her child to a private clinic.
In one sense, the new taxis are catering for a changing economy.
The African Development Bank predicts Benin’s economy will grow at a rate of 5.5 per cent this year, and 6.2 per cent in 2018, with government plans to double investment by 2021.
For the government, it is also a job creator for young people aged 15-35 who make up about 60 per cent of the country’s 11 million people.
The World Bank estimates that about 65 per cent of the economy and more than 90 per cent of the working population is in the informal sector.
Development Minister Abdoulaye Bio Tchan said Benin-Taxi was “environmentally-friendly, promises decent jobs and strengthens public-private partnership”.
The state pays for the training of drivers and helps to arrange loans for them at favourable rates.
Over four years, the drivers have to pay back 9,000 CFA francs a day to eventually own their vehicle.
Informal to formal
Francois Danto, who is in his 30s and has a higher national diploma in tourism, is one of the new drivers. Like most young graduates in Benin, he is unemployed.
He was selected as one of the first 50 drivers and has since worked to pay off his debts from Cotonou’s Stade de l’Amitie (Friendship Stadium), which hosts football matches.
Of the 9,000 CFA francs he has to pay back, he only manages to make 6,000 CFA francs from about five jobs a day.
“It’s OK for a start,” he said, convinced that his driving career will eventually move up a gear.
Transforming an informal sector into a formal one is a complicated challenge and opinion is divided over whether it will be profitable.
Another driver told AFP he earned more selling mobile phone charge cards than as a taxi driver and was struggling to maintain the same standard of living.
Project head Assan Seibou, however, said “how we move around” has to change. Plans are in place to roll out the scheme in other cities, such as Porto Novo, Ouidah and Abomey Calavi.
The only people unfazed by the new form of transport seem to be traditional taxi drivers and the “zemidjans”.
Bertrand Lissanon, the head of a local group of “zems”, said they hadn’t lost many of their clientele.
“The people who use these upmarket taxis are those who already have difficulty using the ‘zemidjans’,” he said.
On the street, Sosthen, was dismissive of the competition as he ferried 10 people in his cab.
“These new, clean taxis with their computers on board can’t pick up the traders and their goods that we take from hard-to-reach places and the markets,” he said.
“I daren’t even talk about weight. They’ll collapse. It’s style just to drive around the well-off.”