People & Society

Diary of a Careem-aholic

Updated 07 Dec, 2017 04:21pm
Careem's cellphone application through which customers book and manage rides | AFP
Careem's cellphone application through which customers book and manage rides | AFP

I first took a Careem a little more than a year ago in Karachi, when I found out they were charging less than a normal taxi and actually had air conditioning that worked. I really liked the first few experiences: no haggling over fare, no explaining directions, no feeling like you’re being driven around by someone with a death wish. Everything was clocked, mapped and smooth.

Since then, Careem has become an app as frequently opened on my phone as Facebook or Twitter. Yet, when people ask me how my experience with Careem has been since then, I struggle to give a quick, concise answer. It has become a necessity, but the wait is sometimes agonisingly long, the captain (as Careem drivers are called) ends up on the other end of town or is stranded at a mechanic’s getting his car fixed and still accepts my ride.

Three months ago, I grabbed my phone and followed a well-rehearsed ritual to call a Careem. I was at The Hotspot in Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, having just polished off two scoops of Oreo Cookies ice cream. I had a friend with me who had done the same. We didn’t have to wait long for the captain to arrive. He was in a beige coloured van, which was strange for an economy Careem. We got in and waited for the van to start moving. It didn’t.

The driver was fiddling with his phone. He was a middle-aged man with a white head and beard. I turned around and looked at my friend, she looked back at me just as perplexed. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “I ... I don’t know what to do. Sorry sir, it’s my first day on the job. This is my first ride.” I was sympathetic but confused as to what he meant by 'don’t know what to do'. “It’s not starting,” he replied. I leaned over to have a look at his phone. He hadn’t pressed 'Start The Ride'. I did it for him. The rest of the ride went along uneventfully. When we got off I told him to press 'End The Ride' so we could know our fare.

I wondered if he had missed a day of training.

Recently, I found out it’s not a day. It’s just an hour. “The captain ... goes through a one-hour training which includes everything from basic information about using [the] Careem app to hygiene,” says Head of Public Affairs at Careem, Sibtain Naqvi, over an email exchange. “Sexual harassment is a big part of this training,” he continues. Isn’t that too short a time to fit all this information in?

Careem has run into regulatory problems everywhere it has operated. This is not due to some maliciousness by design, but the inherent problem in technology outpacing laws. Careem operates on the blurred lines of an online service and a taxi operating company.

“It’s sufficient to cover the points,” says Naqvi. “Right after training there is a written test and drivers who don't do well are not taken on board. They can go through another training round. The process ensures that concepts given in the presentation are absorbed. Besides, Careem captains are called in for a retraining every few months to keep them updated.”

What constitutes sexual harassment? I probe.

“Captains are told exactly what constitutes harassment: moving of rear-view mirror to see customer, unwanted remarks, compliments, and all the way to physical harassment. Penalties on harassment range from warning and blocking/termination to criminal proceedings.”

Captain induction, he tells me, includes thorough background checks, a valid computerised national identity card (CNIC) and driver’s license, confirmation of residential address, neighbourhood references and criminal record clearance (police certificates are obtained from drivers).

He sends me a Careem Captain Undertaking Affidavit. It’s in Urdu. It asks for the captain’s name, Careem registered mobile number, CNIC, an address and two references (with names and mobile numbers). Then follow a series of pledges they have to make and sign under, the first of which is that they have to respect all customers, especially women. This is a refrain throughout the undertaking, ‘especially women’, including talking to customers without their permission. It specifically directs taking female customers only through public thoroughfares and not secluded inner streets, and under no circumstance commenting on their choice of dress or mannerism.

They’re not allowed to initiate conversation, which they do anyway. They’re not allowed to play their own music, which again, they do anyway.

If the captain is not complying with the above directions, women can call the customer service to complain. From personal experience, the customer service is always available and quick to comply. I have gotten drivers who got lost taking the aforementioned discouraged shortcuts, complained and immediately been transferred to another vehicle. Then people have the option to ‘share tracker’ with friends and family to make sure the driver has not gone off course and know where their loved one is at all times.

Yasmin Perveen, one of Careem's female "captains", drives her car in Islamabad | Reuters
Yasmin Perveen, one of Careem's female "captains", drives her car in Islamabad | Reuters

If a customer feels they’ve not been driven well or interacted with badly, they can give the driver a low rating. Captains with lower ratings get fewer bonuses, get called in for further training and in some cases are even fined. Persistent low rating gets them fired from the job, so the customer does wield a certain degree of power.

This doesn’t always translate well practically. For instance, in the event of something going wrong, both the captain and the customer are entitled to cancel the ride. But if the captain ends the ride they get fined 1,000 rupees. If the customer ends the ride they get charged 150 rupees. This causes a lot of friction. I’ve frequently had to complain at the helpline about captains who got lost getting to me, who insisted that I be the one to cancel the ride. It’s a sticky situation, I can’t call a new Careem until I cancel the old one. So it’s my time versus his money.

Despite these little nagging issues Careem continues to gain popularity around the country, especially in the gigantic urban metropolis that is Karachi. The city that produced one half of the company’s founding members.

Careem was founded in 2012 by a Pakistani and a Swede, Mudassir Sheikha and Magnus Olsson, in the city-state of Dubai. It has, in the five years of its business taken the middle east by storm. According to Forbes, it’s a one-billion dollar business now, which makes it a unicorn startup — called that because of the rarity. Sheikha grew up in Karachi and went to Stanford for graduate studies. Careem, setting up business in Pakistan circa 2015, was a sort of homecoming.

I used Careem in the UAE recently. Unlike Pakistan where it still keeps fares low, in the UAE it offers a premium taxi service more expensive but more lavish than the taxi companies that aren’t online. In Abu Dhabi, for instance, it only offers limo services or Careem Kids — ‘family friendly’ vehicles with child seats, at only twice the rate of a regular cab. A limo was so tempting that I took one, sitting all alone in the expansive posterior, to a mall only a few kilometres from my hotel.

When I ordered an economy Careem in Dubai, a Lexus showed up. I thought I'd made a mistake but the captain confirmed that it was an economy car. He was from Pakistan. Where's the economy in this, I asked? “Well this will cost you a few dirhams more than a taxi,” he said. “But look at the buttons on the right side of your seat, push it back, turn up the footrest and relax.”

Traffic congestion on the Islamabad Expressway | Mohammad Asim, White Star
Traffic congestion on the Islamabad Expressway | Mohammad Asim, White Star

Muhammad Ghafoor* has been driving a Careem for two years. He has a Pink Suzuki Alto, 660 cc. It’s a good car for Karachi’s stop and start traffic, his petrol costs aren’t that high. Still, he says while driving me to the airport, he makes nowhere near the money that was advertised. “We were told we can make 80,000 a month. Some who do a 12-hour duty might make that, but most don’t,” he replies to me asking how much he saves. “Look, I comfortably make 80,000 most months in revenue, but then there are fuel costs, maintenance costs, little bumps and scrapes we have to fix to keep the car in a condition that ensures customer satisfaction. At the end of it all, I get around 40,000 rupees in saving. It’s not enough. That’s why I do this as a side thing.” His day job is behind the counter of a mobile shop, which doesn’t pay as much but assures a fixed salary not dependent on the capriciousness of cab services.

Careem drivers don’t get a salary. Twenty per cent of a ride fare goes to the company. The money they make depends entirely on the amount of rides they pick up on a day-to-day basis, and the bonuses they earn from that. The ride fares themselves don’t amount to that much at the end of a week. When they get their bonuses is where they really make the money.

“We get bonuses depending on the number of rides we’ve picked up and the amount of hours we’ve clocked in,” says another driver, Nawazullah Khan*. “So, four short rides instead of one long ride to the airport is in a Careem captain’s favour. That’s why if you enter a destination that is far away it takes longer for someone to accept the ride, but if somebody gets in the car and then says take me to the airport, of course we can’t say no.”

The company doesn’t give out exact information on the bonuses due to competitive reasons, but from my repeated chats with captains it’s safe to say the bonuses can amount to 10-15,000 rupees a month.

Ghafoor says if you don’t bring in a certain number of rides or don’t fill in your hours there are small fines to pay. Then there are the possible problems with customers. Complaints and low ratings are heavily penalised. Ghafoor says he was fined 14,000 rupees in a single week once. “That was more than what I made,” he says shaking his head. “They don’t upgrade their servers in Pakistan. Because it costs a lot of money to upgrade servers despite the increasing number of captains, so they don’t do it because it’s the captains who end up paying the cost for it,” he continues. “Wrong pin location? Driver’s fault. Map not working properly? Driver’s fault. Who is the customer going to complain against? The driver. Then the driver is going to be penalized. Not the customer. Not the MD for failing to upgrade the Pakistani servers.”

It’s a long, talkative drive to the airport. He sometimes thinks about giving it up and taking up a part-time job somewhere. “But I get to choose my hours in this, that’s a luxury few employers give you.”

Not everyone waves away these problems as easily. Earlier this year, President of the Careem Employees Association for Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Aman Butt, led a protest outside the Islamabad Press Club saying that the government needs to regulate Careem and make the company treat its captains better. He complained that the fares are too low compared to fuel costs and wanted a base wage for the captains, independent of fares or bonuses.

He was also incensed that captain’s were not given a fair chance to defend themselves against complaints.

A driver waits for customers at a taxi stand outside a supermarket in Islamabad | AFP
A driver waits for customers at a taxi stand outside a supermarket in Islamabad | AFP

The Careem captains I’ve met over the last two years were mostly former drivers of cabs and private vehicles. Some I met did this as an evening shift after their day job in the services sector, borrowing cars from friends or bosses. But I also met one who was a partner in a property business and did this to supplement his income, because he said he could take care of his business over the phone. He didn’t need to be in an office. One particularly interesting captain was a retired navy man, who wouldn’t say whether he was commissioned or not but claimed to have former accommodations at Naval Housing Society in Karachi’s posh Zamzama area. He conversed with me in English.

The people who run Careem say they don’t prefer any particular social class or specify types of cars. Neither do they want to limit themselves this way. Careem Go can be anything. Careem Go Plus and Business have to be bigger cars, not hatchbacks.

I met six Careem captains who told me they switched from Uber because of the company’s poor practices, lack of a helpline and other technical issues. The former Uber drivers also complain that Uber’s network is so poor that sometimes two cars would be flagged for the same customer, causing confusion and wasting time.

Uber was founded in 2009 and was introduced in Pakistan last year around the same time as Careem. When contacted, Uber insisted their app belies the need for a helpline: "Our advanced technology makes it possible to focus on the safety and comfort of riders and drivers before, during, and after every trip in ways that have never been possible before — this is the reason we prefer that customer service is done through our app."

Five months ago, I had to leave Marriott Hotel to go back to the F-11 sector in Islamabad and realised I would save time just using the yellow-coloured Mehrans outside rather than calling a Careem. I got in the cab, made some small talk and asked the man what he thought of the cab hailing service. He was understandably unhappy.

Careem is aware of the barrage of criticism that came their way after the 'Rishta Aunty' gimmick. Naqvi politely terms it as a marketing ploy that some people found off-centre. But, he’s quick to point out, there have been successes too.

He was upset that this international corporation was undercutting his business. He laughed when I said that a Careem would have charged me less to get to my destination, that taxis are too expensive. “We charge what it costs us, they charge what it costs them,” he says. That is in a sense true — the size of Careem’s business and not needing to buy vehicles or sustain maintenance costs means they can undercut pretty much everyone in the competition. It is accused of operating as a middleman.

That’s where the problems start.

On 15 September this year, a taxi driver, Muhammad Abdul Shakoor, filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court against Careem and Uber. The petition asked the court why the two companies were not registered with transportation authorities, had not paid for the permits to operate as a cab service and hadn’t coloured their vehicles yellow like normal taxis do.

The petition asked for criminal prosecution of the drivers and impounding of all vehicles operating as taxis without the permit to do so.

In January this year, Punjab’s Provincial Transport Authority stated that Careem and Uber were operating outside regulatory bounds in Lahore. A notification was issued to the traffic police and the Lahore Transport Company to stop the utilisation of private cars for commercial purposes without registering with any regulatory body or obtaining route permits for their vehicles.

Careem has run into regulatory problems everywhere it has operated. This is not due to some maliciousness by design, but the inherent problem in technology outpacing laws. Careem operates on the blurred lines of an online service and a taxi operating company. Dubai has many such companies but only Careem and Uber have online services. This has meant that regulators have been slow to recognise and decide their status. Pure online services have no business being regulated by transport authorities but given the size at which Careem is operating and the number of vehicles under its banner, transport authorities have been slowly waking up to the possibility that yes, they need to recognize it as a transport company.

Naqvi says that Careem wants to work with governments, regulatory bodies and transporters to reach a solution that keeps everyone happy. “We’ve started taking cabs on board in Islamabad and have taken rickshaws on board in Karachi and Lahore. Soon, our aim will be to improve the utilisation of all existing public transport vehicles,” he adds.

Zahida Kazmi, a taxi driver, gets into her yellow cab in Rawalpindi | Zayer Hassan/Reuters
Zahida Kazmi, a taxi driver, gets into her yellow cab in Rawalpindi | Zayer Hassan/Reuters

Careem’s Managing Director in Pakistan, Junaid Iqbal, has been very vocal however about the company not just being an information exchange platform or another transport business. In past interviews he’s given statements like “creating a million jobs” and “creating more jobs than any large bank or industrial group”.

When I asked him about these numbers, he referred me to Naqvi, who is in charge of producing these hot takes and sound bites. Naqvi was a bit skittish about a straightforward breakdown of the figures. “Let me put it this way: [Habib Bank Limited] is Pakistan's biggest commercial bank and it has created 15,000 jobs (he referenced their Wikipedia page). Careem has created tens of thousands of jobs. I cannot give the exact number of captains due to commercial reasons but it’s a lot higher than 15,000 and grows by hundreds every day. Now that we are offering bike services and rickshaws the number is increasing even faster.”

He next refers to the company’s stated ambitions. “Our target is to create one million jobs by 2020 and we are well on our way. Every day, hundreds of Careem captains register on our online platform to connect their vehicles with end users.”

He says in many cases, the vehicles these captains are driving are given out by vendors or private car owners. “[People] have invested money in buying new vehicles or registered the ones they had to become Careem's service providers. These people have become entrepreneurs who are making a good income from their vehicles. Many of them have put in more than one car in Careem and a few manage a large fleet of vehicles.”

How many vehicles are operating under the ambit of Careem? “For business reasons I cannot give you the exact number but we have tens of thousands,” says Naqvi.

Out of the 53 cities Careem operates in around the world, 11 are in Pakistan: Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, Sialkot, Faisalabad, Multan, Gujranwala, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Abbottabad. That’s a huge proportion and this covers a pretty large geographical area in the country. You certainly can’t fault them for ambition.

The way they’re marketing this ambition hasn’t sat well with everyone. In June of this year, they ran a two-day promotional offer: the backseat services of a ‘Rishta Aunty’ in addition to the ride. An actual middle-aged woman, who works as a professional matchmaker, would take your details and find you a suitable list of matches.

Many women found this offensive and invasive. For something that purports to increase women’s mobility and protect them from harassment, many women found this to be exactly the kind of conservative views about women – that they ought to be married and not single or independent – that restrict mobility and constitute harassment. They also cited the presence of the captain as a problem while divulging personal information about themselves to another woman.

Of course, others saw this as an interesting and novel way to approach matchmaking, which is otherwise often a formal and intimidating experience.

Careem is aware of the barrage of criticism that came their way after the 'Rishta Aunty' gimmick. Naqvi politely terms it as a marketing ploy that some people found off-centre. But, he’s quick to point out, there have been successes too. “On the social front we have done fundraising for The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and collected hides for Shaukat Khanum. We are a non-traditional company so [we] have some unique campaigns that help us reach out to different audiences. Whether it is 'Rishta Aunty' or bakra delivery, the reactions are usually a mix: most people find them genuinely funny,” he says.

In any case, he says, these responses were learning opportunities they have picked up many lessons from; lessons they will use for future campaigns. Driving around Karachi you can see billboards not meant for clients but for potential captains. "Make 80,000 rupees a month," they say. Next to it they have a picture of a clean-cut man looking mildly pleased with life.

It may not have caused the revolution they want to, yet, but it’s certainly causing quite a fuss.

*Name has been changed on the driver's request.

Additional reporting by Namrah Zafar Moti

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.