Caracas, Venezuela — Ride-sharing apps like Uber, DiDi, and Lyft may have rolled around much of the world, but they haven’t rolled over to Venezuela, where US sanctions and years of hyperinflation and other woes made it difficult to operate.
So a handful of local entrepreneurs have started their own ride-sharing apps — and seem to find a welcome from customers frustrated by scarce taxis, outdated buses and a dilapidated subway system.
Department store buyer Maria Arreaza, 39, had long relied on public transportation to get to her downtown office and was intrigued by ads for the new Ridery app, though she was initially skeptical.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m going to take a test.’ I applied for a service and the application seemed super friendly, I kept trying, I asked for more services… (and) that’s how I became a high-frequency user.”
So much so that when her mother was in the hospital for nearly two months due to COVID-19, she requested a minimum of four trips a day to the hospital and then home or work.
Ridery is one of at least three Venezuelan ride-sharing apps launched during the pandemic — which have benefited from an actual currency switch from the Venezuelan bolivar to the U.S. dollar that helped curb years of skyrocketing inflation. The new services will set their prices in dollars and allow riders to pay with bank cards or transfer services instead of bills.
Public transport across the country is a mix of public and private enterprises, all of which have fallen into disrepair. Some of the buses around Caracas are so old that they have been nicknamed ‘The Immortal’, while others have proved overly mortal due to lack of parts or maintenance.
Parts of the city’s metro system are often out of service. Meanwhile, there are fewer taxi ranks in the city after years of hyperinflation and outbound migration wiped out much of the middle class that patronized them.
Pickpocketing, sweat and noxious fumes are common in street and underground transport.
All also struggle with payment methods, partly due to the scarcity of bolivars. The public system does not accept foreign currency and private operators cannot easily give people change if the rate is not rounded to amounts equivalent to dollar bills: quarters, dimes and nickels are not in circulation.
And in a country where suspicion and mistrust are ubiquitous, the information the apps provide about the driver, vehicle, price and route has attracted consumers.
“Everyone told us we were crazy, that nobody here would get in a car with a stranger, so we launched with our own investment… see what was going to happen,” said Gerson Gomez, CEO and co-founder of Ridery , launched in March 2021.
“Delivery applications have already started to scale in Venezuela. Dollarization would have allowed the usual means of e-commerce transaction, such as credit cards, to be really accepted in Venezuela, and also… you would hear from a lot of people that the city is a little bit safer.”
The app now works in 12 cities and sees 400,000 trips per month with 12,000 drivers, according to the company.
Its main competitor, Yummy, which launched in 2020 as a delivery app and later expanded to include ride-sharing, did not respond to an interview request.
However, the apps services are not within everyone’s reach. The country’s monthly minimum wage is $30. The average monthly salary in the private sector is less than $100. So even a $3 ride of a few miles can be a big chunk of many budgets.
Gerzon said drivers earn more than $700 a month on average, excluding costs such as gas and maintenance. He added that he thinks ride-sharing and delivery apps help even those who don’t use them.
“If a person who works in your store and makes $50 tells you that he is going to leave because he is going to work with a motorcycle that a cousin is going to lend him and he is going to make $400 a month, you are forced to increase the salary Gerzon said, “I think these applications have helped in the cities, where they’re driving up wages a little bit.”
Rides on the apps tend to be cheaper than taxi fares, although so far they haven’t sparked the sort of large-scale protests from taxi drivers in other countries.
And some drivers say they haven’t seen the kind of profit they expected.
After seeing ads on social media, William Devia passed the vehicle inspection and interview in October to become a driver for an app. He’s been a taxi driver for 10 years and since taxis in Caracas are only marked by skylights – no special paint schemes or extra signage – he thought he might give the app a try.
A few rides in, Devia, 33, decided it wouldn’t work.
“The customer will always look for the cheapest one,” Devia said. “Everyone takes care of their own wallet. It wasn’t profitable because they (the apps) demand a lot – that the car not have a single scratch – for how little someone is going to make.”
But for Angel Altuve, the 10 rides he tries to get each day help him supplement his $30 monthly pension. Altuve was fired from his management-level job after 20 years due to the crisis in the country.
“It depends on the day, because there are times when there are only rides with a minimum fare. It’s a random thing,” Alduve, 60, said. “So in those 10 trips I might be able to make $20 on the net profit I have left. But if the services go to more distant places, I might be able to make $45-$ earn 50.”