Ashenafi Alemseged, 30, has been driving for the ride-hailing apps Feres and Ride in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for around two years. Ride-hailing was introduced to the country in 2016, and, since then, demand for the services has skyrocketed. Local players Ride and Feres are the biggest platforms, but there are now more than 20 companies with e-taxi service licenses, almost all of them domestically owned businesses. 

“Ride drivers,” as they are called in Addis Ababa, earn an average of $23 a day before factoring in costs. In a country where the per capita income is just $2.76 per day, it’s an attractive prospect. Ashenafi has two bachelor’s degrees — in nursing and public health — but there are few jobs in the public health system, and the pay is poor.

Today, an estimated 10,000 drivers work for the platforms, and the business has become ever more competitive. Many drivers rent vehicles, paying up to half of their income for the vehicle. That, along with the rising cost of living and fuel in Ethiopia, has meant that margins are increasingly tight for drivers like Ashenafi.

(Note: $1 is approximately 45.50 birr.)

Unless I worked late the night before, I typically wake up at 6 a.m. The first thing I do is wash my car. The companies I drive for, Ride and Feres, require you to have a clean vehicle, and the weather and the bad roads in Addis Ababa mean your car gets filthy. Then I turn on the apps, and the day begins.

Both Ride and Feres work the same way. Trip requests come in with basic info — where the passenger is, where they want to go, and what the fare is. The apps give me the option of picking up the orders I want. I accept orders after taking into account where the passenger wants to go, how far it is, and how much it pays. But you can never have a bulletproof strategy for filtering requests, and I usually go with my gut.

The first trip of the day is for a five-minute drive. To go 1 kilometer, it is an easy 75 birr [about $1.67]. But the destination, Girum Hospital, is a very tricky one. I wouldn’t have accepted if I had known the pickup location. Just a few weeks ago, I was almost beaten up trying to pick up a passenger. The hospital is regarded as a turf area of Lada taxi drivers, who don’t like ride-hailing services, which cut into their earnings.

On the Feres app, trip requests first go directly to whoever is nearest to the client. However, the algorithm of the other app, Ride, is more complex. It takes into account how long you’ve worked and how much you’ve already earned in the day to determine which driver gets offered the gig. If you’ve just logged on or if you haven’t earned much yet, the app will prioritize you.

The apps give me a few seconds to accept a ride. If I don’t immediately accept the request, it will then be sent to other nearby drivers simultaneously. Once that happens, the request becomes a bid, and whoever responds first lands the order. 

I never decline a request on Ride; I just let it run out. If you decline a ride, you get put to the back of the queue for future gigs, and it’ll be two hours before you get another request. When I accept a request, I immediately call and ask for the passenger’s exact whereabouts. The majority of the trip requests are placed through calls, and I don’t always have the passenger’s precise location. I pull up, the passenger gets in, the trip starts, and the app’s meter is turned on.

I’m always polite when I’m driving, but I’m not good at small talk. I never start a conversation, but I’ll talk if the passenger strikes one. Most of the time, I just put on the radio and cruise. A rude and entitled passenger is my worst nightmare, and you would be surprised how often that happens. Passengers demand I handle their luggage for them or expect me to know exactly where a place is, even if it’s not well-known. I’ve had passengers keep changing their orders because they don’t know exactly where they’re going, and I’ve had a passenger give me a hard time because I didn’t know where some grocery store was.

Today, almost all my riders are families traveling in groups. Maybe it’s because it’s the weekend and people are catching up with each other. After I dropped off my first fare, the next trip was to pick up another passenger at a different hospital. The passenger was taking home a patient after a surgery. They looked worried. I knew that her surgery was fresh because she was in pain. I drove the car carefully, avoiding bumps in order not to cause her more pain.

I don’t have a spot where I usually wait for orders. I go wherever the job takes me. But to stay ahead of other drivers, I follow mass gatherings, events, and festivals, as they lead to potential customers. You can even find me around mosques on Friday afternoons, hoping to land clients leaving prayers.

“I can make as much in a week driving as I could in a month working in the health sector. But I have to work Sunday to Sunday.”

At 7 p.m., I decide to call it a day. Sometimes I work later, but never beyond 9 p.m. I don’t work at night. Quite a few cars have been stolen when responding to orders after dark, and drivers have been killed. Just four days ago, a driver and a father of three didn’t return home after he left for the job. His whereabouts are still unknown. [A week later, his body was found.]

Being a driver was never the plan. Growing up, I had a passion for health care and wanted that to be my career. But there aren’t many jobs, and they don’t even pay enough to make rent. I can make as much in a week driving as I could in a month working in the health sector. But I have to work Sunday to Sunday. I rent the car monthly. It costs 500 birr a day. If I take a day off, it’s money leaving my pocket. 

On good days, I can make up to 2,400 birr in total revenue, but on average, I get 1,400 birr for making around 10 trips. After fuel, car rental, and commission from the companies, which is about 11%, I take home about 450 birr. That’s decent enough to support my life. 

This line of work rewards careful and street-smart drivers. I do my best to avoid traffic fines because the most minor traffic fine could take away one-third of my daily earnings. Besides that, the job is pretty easy. I don’t see myself doing it in the long run. I dream of saving up some money and opening a business. A career in health is no longer a viable option. Owning a business is the new goal. But for now, I am okay with being just a driver.