Two years ago, Uber was unheard of. Today it’s a buzzword. You could argue that Rudolf Makopole Malaka has been on the same fast track. From humble township beginnings to a property on an estate; with three Uber cars and three companies – he owes it all to the mobile app.
Uber gives drivers the opportunity to be the CEO of their own company – they own their own cars and set their hours. Connecting riders with drivers through a smartphone app, users submit a trip request, which is then routed to Uber drivers. Since 2013, the online ride-hailing service has taken off in South Africa.
“People lack jobs. We decided to join Uber – not just to make money but to create job opportunities for our fellow brothers who don’t have jobs because we know how hard it is not to have a job. We’ve been there,” he says.
“I spent weeks eating only Weet-Bix. You go to school on an empty stomach, you walk long distances. I don’t want my kids to go through that, I don’t want kids from the location to go through that,” he says.
After getting his degree in IT, he was unemployed and disheartened.
“I’ve been jobless and I’m a qualified auditor and qualified in IT. You go to school, you get the qualification but you don’t get the job. You wait, you go to interviews, they say they’ll call you but they don’t call you. You can’t just sit around and wait,” he says.
He brainstormed new opportunities. He started his first company in property development which grew into construction and image consulting – styling people, homes and their businesses. Riding on the momentum of his success, he started an IT company and became an Uber partner. A far cry from scouring through the classifieds and being rejected at interviews, he now makes about R150,000 (around $11,000) a month. With a fleet of three cars and looking to expand to 15 by next year, business is booming.
“Uber is a platform to make a change. We will have five cars by the end of the month. That’s five families we’re feeding. We’re making a change,” he says.
It should be so simple but Uber has faced its fair share of challenges. In June, cab drivers in Paris locked down the city in protest; operations were banned in Germany after a court ruled that Uber violated transport laws; in South Korea employees linked to the company were charged with running an illegal taxi firm; and in South Africa, metered-taxis are demanding a clampdown on the new kid on the block. They claim it’s operating illegally, flouting regulations and putting passengers at risk.
“A meter taxi attacked me. I was protecting the client. I said ‘you can smash my car, you can do whatever you do, but not to my client’. He was trying to pull my client. The problem is that they don’t understand competition. They say they’re taking our customers but what about other public transport? It’s a client preference to use us. We don’t scout for clients, we’re requested.”
Malaka sets himself apart from the rest by putting his drivers through his image consulting business. Putting professionalism at the fore, his drivers are dressed to impress, paying attention to every detail from the cut of the suit to the color of the tie; the radio station and temperature are adjusted for the customer; and a charger and auxiliary cable are always made available. His drivers go through training every month to ensure that their Uber ratings stay high.
“We want to empower them – they work for us for only two years. We want our Uber drivers to buy their own cars. We give them advice, we make sure that they know how to save. Then we hire other people. It’s a chain – we’re empowering you, we want you to empower someone else.”
“I moved up. I go back to where I came from because I know I left people there who helped me to get where I am. You can’t forget where you come from. I employ people from the townships because I know the struggles,” he says.
He’s driven and he’s making it, one Uber ride at a time.