One morning in September, Victor, who runs a fashion brand in the Nigerian commercial hub of Lagos, called a cab through the ride-hailing app Bolt. He was on his way to a market in the neighborhood of Yaba, where he expected to pick up a consignment of fabrics. He rode with a friend, and they both dozed in the back seat, as the cab worked its way through the city’s infamous traffic jams.
They were close to their destination when the cab was pulled over by two men in regular clothing; they tapped on the window and asked Victor — whose name has been changed to protect his privacy — to roll it down. One of the men introduced himself as an officer with the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, a unit of the Nigerian police force that has become notorious for criminality and brutality.
The driver unlocked the doors, and the two officers entered the car, one in the front seat and the other joining Victor and his friend in the back. They ordered the driver to park at a nearby bus stop and demanded that Victor and his friend hand over their phones. Victor said they found nothing incriminating — just pictures of houses that Victor’s friend, a realtor, had on his handset. The officers then forced Victor and his friend onto a bus, threatening to beat them if they refused to comply.
“They demanded we give them 1 million naira ($2,530), but because it was getting late and we didn’t want to stay the night with them, we decided to negotiate and finally settled on 100,000,” Victor told Rest of World. “The next day, I tried calling the driver to retrieve the things I left in his car, but I was blocked.”
Victor’s experience with Bolt is not unique. The service, which was launched in Nigeria in 2016, has been accused of turning a blind eye to numerous abuses by its drivers, ranging from dropping off passengers mid-trip to assault and turning riders over to the police for extortion. In October, thousands of young Nigerians took to the streets to protest against abuses commited by SARS — including kidnapping, extortion, torture, assault, and even murder. At the time, a number of people on Twitter accused Bolt drivers of colluding with SARS officers. Among the hashtags used by protesters was #CancelBolt.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Bolt said the app has a number of safety features, “such as sharing your ride by sending your contact a live map of where the ride is taking you.” She also said, “We address matters on a case-by-case basis, and we encourage riders to report such encounters via the app or via email.”
Although the risks of using Bolt are well-known, the service is still startlingly popular. Its share of the Nigerian ride-hailing market is almost 60%, according to analysis by Nigerian tech site Technext, and the service has around 20,000 drivers, more than double the number that its nearest rival, global ride-hailing giant Uber, has in the country, according to Comrade Ibrahim Ayoade, president of the National Union of Professional App-Based Workers, who spoke to Technext.
Bolt’s popularity may simply be a result of its extraordinarily low prices. The app is far cheaper than Uber, whose fees remain out of reach for most Lagosians. In a city with little reliable public transportation, Bolt, while risky, remains one of the only affordable options.
“Bolt has focused on going to places most competing ride-sharing apps like Uber won’t go and are less heavy-handed on their drivers,” said Emmanuel Paul, a writer at Techpoint, a tech-media platform. The result of that, he added, is that its standards are lower: “It’s easier to onboard on Bolt than on Uber. Meaning, different shades of people can be let in on the platform. … The easier the entry barrier, in this case, the more bad eggs will have room to join.”
Bolt — then called Taxify — arrived in Nigeria in November of 2016. Headquartered in Estonia, the company operates in more than 150 cities worldwide and in seven African countries. It entered Nigeria two years after Uber but quickly carved out a niche by focusing on affordability and access, both crucial to penetrating the Nigerian market, where about 40% of the population lives in extreme poverty.
To reach price-sensitive consumers, Bolt has spent investor cash on subsidizing rides — the company has raised more than $360 million and is valued at close to $2 billion. “I think we can attribute their low prices to the amount they have raised and their drive to penetrate every market they enter,” said Yinka Awosanya, intelligence lead at Techpoint. “When you capture a market, you can bank on volume to make up for the low prices.”
However, the company’s critics say it also cut corners on certifying its drivers and upholding high standards for safety. Reports of passengers being mistreated by Bolt drivers began appearing online frequently in 2019, as social media users started sharing their accounts of being assaulted and intimidated.
Passengers who spoke to Rest of World said they were unwilling to report incidents to Bolt, because the company has a reputation for not responding to complaints. Several young Nigerians who spoke to Rest of World after having one or more bad Bolt experiences said they have never had their grievances resolved. Wumi, another Lagos resident who asked to be identified by an alias, said his Bolt driver made him exit the cab when he was still far away from his destination, after baselessly accusing Wumi of trying to dupe him. His complaint was never resolved, so, like many other people, he now rarely bothers to place one.
Victor first reported his experience to Bolt privately but took to Twitter after receiving no response from the company. Bolt then released a two-part statement saying it bore no responsibility and urged Victor to report the incident to the police — the same authorities who had assaulted him. Bolt declined to comment on specific disciplinary action taken to address reported incidents and instead claims to be engaging in driver reeducation programs and investing in its support agents.
Bolt has instead focused on telling riders how to keep themselves safe from its drivers. The company has developed promotional campaigns in the app and on social media that remind passengers to double-check their driver’s identity and share their location with a trusted contact; the company has also promised to support passengers after their ride is over.
The company’s marketing has, at times, appeared tone-deaf. In October, during the height of the #EndSARS protests, users were offered 50% discounts using a promo code that played on the movement’s slogan, “Sorosoke,” which means “speak up.”
In mid-November, when another wave of reports against Bolt drivers was making the rounds on Twitter, the app allegedly paid a number of influencers to put out tweets praising Bolt and promoting its #DrivenBySafety campaign. While none of the influencers admitted to being paid, several had been actively calling out the company just days before. A few influencers later apologized after backlash from their followers. Bolt told Rest of World that it routinely uses influencers for marketing and to promote its safety campaigns.
The company’s marketing strategy may reflect the fact that it feels capable of riding out the current wave of criticism. Even though many people are uncomfortable using the app, they often feel they have few viable alternatives. Uber’s coverage outside of Nigeria’s city centers is weaker, and its prices are high. Other players, including ORide, owned by Chinese-backed tech company Opera, have not been able to reach critical mass, leaving Bolt’s dominance among lower-income users unchallenged.
In Lagos, 19-year-old Obehi Odianosen has had several horrible experiences on Bolt. But she still turns to it for its accessibility, easy user interface, drivers who respond quickly, and affordability. “I’ve deleted the app a lot, but, when push comes to shove, I download it again,” she said.