Valley folk embrace ride-hailing services for ease of useNearly 2.5 million people have downloaded the app to request a ride, according to data compiled by the Post.
Last July, just as Nepalis were beginning to venture out of their homes after the government ended a four-month-long lockdown, Purushottam Acharya went shopping.
“I went to Bhote Bahal to buy some electronic items for my home. After making my purchase, I became concerned how I was going to get it home. When taxi drivers see an anxious passenger with excess baggage, they could jack up the fare," the 50-year-old school teacher from Bhaktapur told the Post.
“And there was no way I could carry the heavy pack to the bus park,” he said. Then the shopkeeper suggested that Acharya request a Pathao ride, and he called Pathao himself.
“I had heard of ride-hailing services, but I thought that they would be expensive like the usual taxis. I didn't even know how to use the mobile app to hail a ride,” he said.
“Within a few minutes, the bike rider arrived and dropped me home. It cost Rs180, far cheaper than what I had expected.”
This was Acharya's first experience of using a ride-hailing service. Since then, he has been a regular customer. “I asked my daughter to download the app, and learned how to make requests for a ride. It’s not difficult.”
When Nepal’s first ride-hailing service Tootle opened in 2016, many people, bureaucrats and operators of public transportation services had raised questions about becoming a pillion passenger on a stranger's motorcycle and paying them.
Controversies over safety, insurance coverage and non-payment of taxes by these firms also emerged.
In January 2019, the government banned ride-sharing services, stating that they had been established without fulfilling the necessary procedures. Following widespread public criticism over the move, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli instructed authorities not to bar them.
Again in November 2019, the government issued a ban on ride-sharing services, instructing them not to use private vehicles for purposes other than specified.
Today, ride-hailing services have gained much traction with nearly 2.5 million people in the Kathmandu Valley downloading the app to request a ride, according to data compiled by the Post of three ride-sharing companies—Pathao, Tootle and Sawarima.
Lozoom and Super Apps have also started services, but they are not so visible.
Tootle would not reveal the number of daily passenger trips and revenue. But the Tootle website shows it has 50,000 trained riders, whom it calls Tootle Partners, with a 400,000 customer base.
Pathao said it has trained 100,000 riders, 92,000 of them bike riders.
“We are doing more than 60,000 trips daily, the majority of them by bike,” Surakchya Hamal, marketing manager of Pathao, told the Post. Pathao was doing a total of 30,000 rides daily until last July.
Pathao, a Bangladeshi aggregator of cabs and two-wheelers, refused to disclose its daily revenue.
Newly-launched Sawarima, which came on the scene in mid-November, says it has 3,000 trained riders with 7,000 daily customers.
Demand for ride-hailing services surged after the government lifted the lockdown on July 21 and permitted offices and factories to resume operations.
Jobholders began going back to work, but they feared they might catch Covid-19 when commuting by public transportation, so they turned to ride-hailing services which came to pick them up at their doorsteps.
Nepal’s public transportation system has always been problematic and the daily commute to work has become full of hassles as well. This has become a major reason for the rising popularity of ride hailing services in the country.
It was a big relief for Prakash Lama, a Pathao rider. Due to the lockdown, he lost his job. But he chose to become a fulltime rider. Lama uses both Tootle and Pathao apps.
Lama earns an average of Rs30,000 a month. He spends around 40 percent of his earnings on petrol, phone charges, data charges and bike maintenance, said Lama, who lives in a rented flat in Kirtipur with his four-member family.
“We pay 20 percent commission to Pathao,” Lama said. The Kavre native says that other ride-hailing services take only 10 percent as their commission which he thinks is reasonable.
According to Pathao, a bike rider can earn up to Rs65,000-70,000 per month depending on the ride, while taxi riders can make more than Rs100,000 monthly.
Last year, Pathao riders had complained against the company when it hiked the commission to 20 percent from 5 percent. Pathao has introduced insurance coverage of up to Rs500,000 against accidental loss or damage to a bike or car or to a third party, and medical insurance in the same amount for riders and passengers.
Tootle has not introduced any particular insurance but says the mandatory third party insurance policy of the government covers loss or damage caused by accidents to a third party.
Sixit Bhatta, co-founder and CEO of Tootle, said that ride-hailing services had become an alternative for many who lost their jobs during the pandemic. “Obviously, the number of passengers have been growing exuberantly, but cases of riding offline are also on the rise,” he said.
“We see queues of riders wearing jackets of a certain company at major junctions. This helps passengers to come to them directly, and they both can deal offline,” he said. “Obviously, it is difficult to deal with such cases which are rising.”
A rider in Bhaktapur told the Post that he remains offline if his loyal passengers, neighbours and relatives contact him directly for a ride.
“This issue needs to be taken sensitively,” said Bhatta.
Some riders whom the Post talked to said the market may see the entry of more ride-hailing services in the future that would automatically reduce the commission rate due to competition.
Sawarima sees future business scope in the ride-hailing sector, and expects a dramatic surge in the number of customers.
Jeevan Raut, managing director of Sawarima, said that ride hailing services could provide multiple benefits to customers ranging from rides to ordering food and buying groceries, so the future of ride-hailing services is bright and will grow,” said Raut.
Hamal said the number of riders doubled after the government's decision to lift the lockdown. “The number of riders possibly swelled because many companies laid off their workers due to financial problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Hamal.
The number of customers hailing rides also increased steeply after the lockdown as people wanted to avoid the crowded public transportation system, said Hamal. Apart from rides, it provides food delivery services and plans to begin parcel delivery services soon.
Prajita Manandhar of Thasikhel, Lalitpur says she is less stressed when commuting to work using ride-hailing services.
“Most mornings I call a ride-hailing service to go to work to avoid traffic jams. I have been reaching the office on time,” Manandhar, who works in a private trading company, told the Post.
“I sometimes have to work late while keeping the accounts, and I miss public transportation. I used to get stressed thinking how to get home late at night. Thanks to ride-hailing services, that is not a problem anymore.”
Manandhar said that she used to avoid late-night get-togethers with friends so that she would not miss public vehicles. But she is not worried now.”
As ride-hailing gains popularity, complaints are also growing about harassment by the riders with more and more women turning to these services, according to the companies.
“We provide training against sexual harassment on a regular basis to the riders,” said Bhatta.
“We have complete details of our riders, and if someone causes problems like harassment, we file a police complaint against them. We have ride tracking features, and customers can share their live location if they do not feel secure,” said Hamal.
“Customers can make a complaint through a call centre or social media; we take immediate action.”