The Cuban Uber. Or should we call it Cuber?

A group of Cuban entrepreneurs calling themselves SEIM are attempting to create the Cuban Uber (Cuber?) Though it’s still in its infancy, the app has the potential to change the way Cubans, and tourists, navigate the island. According to a recent article in Cubanet, the group will be releasing the app, called RenC, this October, though they’re already registering drivers.

Airbnb recently took of in Cuba, but not because it overthrew an existing system, as it did in the US by undercutting hotel costs, but rather by leveraging an existing one. In Cuba, due to government regulations, there already existed a robust network of private homeowners renting out their houses to tourist. These casa particulares attracted plenty of clients, but could prove difficult to find and reserve. Enter Airbnb, with its sleek booking platform and simple user interface. Of course, Airbnb needed to go out and contact the homeowners and figure out how to pay them, which proved no simple task.

The same network exists for drivers in Cuba. Due to the considerable money that can be made driving a taxi, many people with cars are turning to driving private cars for tourists and Cubans alike. One of the most common examples of this is the colectivo or almendron system, which many regular Cubans use to get around Havana. These cars drive set routes, picking up and dropping people off at various stops along the way. Due to boom in tourism, there are many other types as drivers as well, from the small two-person cocotaxis, to daily drivers, to “taxi directos”—almendrones that want to take you directly to your final destination, and charge you more.

Despite this large network of drivers, there is still no great way to get in contact with them. This is a tremendous opportunity for an Uber-like app, just as the casa particular network provided the perfect base for Airbnb’s entry into the island. But, unlike Airbnb, Uber won’t be able to make headway in this market, for one simple reason—its app is based on constant connectivity, an impossibility in Cuba. Instead, a new type of service is required, one that forgoes wifi and data and relies instead on good old fashioned SMS—also known as text messages.

Several app developers have already tried something like this, such as yotellevo, but none have succeeded outright. The team at SEIM may be the first to crack this problem. Their app, RenC, will connect drivers and riders without the need for wifi. They’ve come up with some pretty brilliant workarounds to adapt the Uber model to Cuba.

On its surface, the service works pretty much just like Uber. A rider sets their pickup and dropoff locations, and RenC confirms this and gives them a price. RenC’s servers then look for the closet driver, and send them a message informing them that they’re hired, supplying the trip and rider information. The rider similarly receives the driver’s name, license plate number, and a photo.

While the functionality is similar to Uber, the inner workings of the app are anything but. As we discussed in depth in our long-form article on cuentapropistas, Cuban app developers face a slew of unique challenges. SEIM seems to have come up with some clever workarounds for all of them. Though SEIM hasn’t released any of the details on how exactly the app works, it’s possible to infer a fair amount based on their prior statements and the constraints of the Cuban telecom system. Below are some of the biggest challenges SEIM faced in creating their app, and the brilliant ways we believe they’re overcoming them.

Lack of cellular data

Cellular data in Cuba is very limited. While international cell users can access slow data for around $2 a megabyte, Cuban phones can only use the data to access a very limited number of sites, such as the state-run email client. And because wifi is limited to hotspots located throughout the city, most Cuban apps therefore operate offline.

This obviously isn’t an option for something like RenC, and it seems they’ve come up with a clever workaround. Their app uses SMS to communicate with the drivers and customers. Instead of the server communicating with the app using data, RenC uses SMS. When a client calls a ride, the app sends a text message to the RenC phone number, which notifies the server. The 160-character message contains encoded data such as the pickup location and drop-off location and the phone number is linked to the user of the app.

The only thing that can’t be sent over text message is the photo of the driver and the car. It’s possible that the app itself contains the entire driver database, including these photosThe user simply receives a text with a code for the driver, and the app searches its database to match this to the photos, almost the same way that emojis work. This would increase the size of the app, but it’s probably worth it, given that there are so many drivers looking for fares and a rider could easily be confused (or convinced) into taking the wrong car.

Lack of GPS

Uber usually automatically sets the pickup point based your phone’s location. Though the GPS on some cellphones work in Cuba, many do not. Those that do can often be fairly inaccurate. To get around this, RenC lets the users set the pickup point as well as the destination. Since data is unavailable, the app must contain an offline map. Offline maps in Cuba are becoming increasingly common as more Cubans have access to smartphones and as private businesses open up.

The offline map allows the riders to select their pickup and drop off locations. This information must then be sent via text message to the servers, possibly in the form of a street address, but more likely as a longitude and latitude. Using this information, the server can then translate the long/lat coordinate into a street address that’s readable to a human driver. This also cuts down on the size of the map that needs to be stored in the app—no need for tens of thousands of individual street names and addresses and locations. Most Cubans talk about addresses in terms of what streets the location is between, anyway, foregoing individual house numbers.

Lack of digital payments

Most people in Cuba don’t have a credit card, which makes online payments impossible. Cuba is a cashed-based economy, and RenC is no exception. Though it costs the user 0.09 CUC on their cell phone plan in order to call a ride, this is just the cost of the text message. The users then pay the drivers directly in cash, according to the price set by RenC.

Though it’s unclear how RenC makes money from the app, it’s likely that they charge the drivers to be members. This could be a monthly fee, similar to the way other apps charge restaurants and business an annual cash payment to be listed in their directory. It’s more likely that SEIM charges a percentage of what the drivers collect. Since RenC sets the prices and tracks the rides, they’ll know exactly how much each driver makes, and can collect something like 10% at the end of each month. This makes money for the drivers and the app.

It’s a fascinating concept, and clearly indicative of what Cuban creators are capable of. They can take novel ideas of the rest of the world and cleverly, and brilliantly, adapt them to their circumstances. What’s also amazing is the fact that this type of system could have been implemented in the US over a decade ago, as it relies purely on text messaging. Of course, at that time, smartphones were just starting out and far from ubiquitous. Cubans have much greater access to smartphones than they do to data. Some recent estimates put smartphone ownership at over 70% in Cubans 18-40 years old living in urban areas. All they’re lacking is internet—though they certainly find ways around it.

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