DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's think about some of the newer successful companies out there. Airbnb can turn any house into a hotel, but that often means sleeping in a stranger's spare room. Then there are Uber and Lyft, which turn a stranger's car into a cab. The common theme here - trust, which is scarce in some places. NPR's Gregory Warner found a startup in Nairobi, Kenya that's trying to bring this business model to a part of the world known for lawlessness.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It's a problem in a taxi economy if people don't like getting into cabs that are driven by strangers. A cabdriver is a stranger almost by definition. But in the high-crime city of Nairobi, people prefer to call up drivers that they know or that their friends know. An American named Jason Eisen spent years in Nairobi as a consultant until he had his big idea. And he built an app that doesn't just tell you which taxis are close by, like Uber does, but it also assigns the driver a trust score by scouring your phonebook and your social media.
JASON EISEN: Do you have this driver directly in your phone book? Or do you have a friend that has them in their phonebook? And is that friend connected to you via your phonebook or via Facebook or via some other means? So we can establish sort of a trust score for each driver and rank them in that order.
WARNER: Uber, itself, launched here in Nairobi in January. The company says it vets all its drivers. Eisen claims that background checks are suspect in a city where people can purchase a clean record with a bribe.
EISEN: So for us, a far more reliable method of establishing trust is who do I know personally and who do my friends know personally? Who do I trust or who do they already trust?
WARNER: His app went live this March. It's called Maramoja.
EISEN: Maramoja is Kiswahili for right away, immediately - something like that.
WARNER: Calling a Maramoja cab was far from immediate. It took four times as long as the Uber I'd called that morning. But when the driver arrived, he came recommended by Jason's Facebook friend. That was a cozy extra layer of known-ness, not only for me but for the driver, who says he's had bad experiences as a cabbie. And Eisen is dreaming big. This social trust model, he says, could sell more than just taxi services, and not just in Nairobi. He believes it's a system for selling services online in any developing part of the world where institutions are weak, trust is scarce and people already rely heavily on word-of-mouth.
This is my first time using Uber.
JACKSON KAMAU: What?
WARNER: Jackson Kamau is an Uber driver in Nairobi. And he says people do avoid unknown cabbies here, but mostly because they fear getting ripped off. And he should know. He used to drive a yellow cab in the city, and every chance he got, he overcharged his clients.
KAMAU: Because basically that's the business (laughter).
WARNER: In a city without taxi meters, every cab ride begins with a negotiation, a contest over a fare, and that can cause tension. But now that Kamau is a driver for Uber, the algorithm sets the price. He can relax, concentrate on boosting his Uber rating, which is already 4.8 out of 5. He credits it to taking good shortcuts, offering free water and bonding with customers.
KAMAU: You want to know more about them and how you'd be able to transact more business with them at a later date. It's not about today and then just when you drop them, that's it.
WARNER: It's about turning that single ride into a trusted relationship. In Kenya, he says, that's where the money is. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.