Sórósoke Downtown: Blessing Onuh – Nigeria’s First Female Uber Driver
All our lives, society puts us in a box and tells us what we can and can’t do. Most of these are allocated to us solely based on what genitals we possess even though it has absolutely no correlation with the task in question. This week’s Sóró Sókè Downtown features the first Female Uber Driver in Nigeria. Blessing Onuh, a trailblazer – by every definition of the word – sat down with DOWNTOWN’S Kehindé Fagbule to talk about her incredible journey of coming to Lagos and immediately forging a career path for herself in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
What made you decide to go into the business?
Naturally, I love driving. However, five years ago, I came to Lagos from Abuja for a wedding. When we got to the airport, I found out that we could book a cab online and that came as a surprise to me because Uber just began operations in Nigeria at the time. So when the driver came and we got on the road, I asked a lot of questions. He told me everything I needed to know and I was like “okay, they make good money, why don’t I give it a try?” I never went back to Abuja *laughs*. I sent for the rest of my stuff and just started living in Lagos. I love driving, vibing to music and meeting new people so it was a no-brainer for me.
What were you doing prior?
I was working as a research officer in Nigerian Bio Enterprise in Abuja, the federal secretariat. When Buhari came in, he scrapped the whole thing and everyone began struggling.
When you started, did you own the car, work for someone or was it a hire purchase?
When I started, I went for the exam in Ikoyi. A physical exam because of course you wouldn’t want to put an idiot on the road *laughs*. When I got there, the place was filled up. It was a new establishment here at the time so everyone wanted to be part of it. I was the only female there; and there were approximately 100 of us. Obviously, I passed so I was asked if I had a car, to which I replied no. Usually, Uber had already met with partners who were going to invest their cars in the business; and those partners would come in and interview different prospective drivers to pick whoever they wanted to trust their cars with. I had so many interviews but they kept turning me down. I remember I would leave the men at some point and target interviewing with the women as per: women supporting women *laughs*, that didn’t work. Nobody was willing to trust their cars with me. Their responses were generic along the lines of “Please, I don’t want any troubles. You’re a female”… even from fellow women. I became frustrated and it was so obvious to the point that a man walked up to me and advised me to get a car on hire purchase. That was scary to me as I had no idea how the job would pan out so to get that committed scared me. Another man walked up to me right after and gave his car to me; he’s a pastor. It was a luxurious 2014 Toyota Corolla and I was so happy.
My first trip was a guy and his girlfriend and they were very shocked because they hadn’t seen a female Uber driver. That happiness was short-lived though as I got frustrated a week later. I got a lot of cancelled orders. I called Uber to complain about it and they empathized with me. They called me to their office and began an ad campaign to create an awareness of the fact that they had female drivers because sometimes when I meet with riders, they would think the driver kept his wife on the wheels or perhaps he used his girlfriend’s picture as his display picture on the app. A lot of them didn’t believe I was in fact the driver. They pushed the ad campaign and things began to turn around. It hurts when people keep cancelling on you because then you start wondering what you did wrong… and my car was beautiful *laughs*.
What is the hardest part of the job?
Hardest part for me is returning home empty-handed on some days. Or when my clients get rude and difficult to work with. That’s not to say they are no bad stories. Just recently, Uber drivers in Lagos protested against bad prices and lack of adequate security. I’ve had colleagues who go through hell in the hands of riders and I used to have a friend and colleague who died as a result. It’s been God’s grace that I’ve not had any of those experiences. I remember however when a rider tried to steal my phone and I had to kick his ass *laughs*. I call all my male customers “bro” or “my G” so as to set a friendly premise to keep our relationship strictly business and kill every one of their sexual advances.
How do you maintain a work-life balance? Do you hang out with friends or go on romantic dates?
That is my new year’s resolution *laughs*. Work takes a lot of time. When you drive for the most part of the day, you go back home very tired. My girl friend has been trying to get me to go out more and I’m trying to heed that advice.
Would you say you are a chatty driver or the phrasal “shut up and drive” kind of driver.
That’s very dependent on the rider really. When you get into my car, I greet you and we get moving. When you start making small talks, I switch and start having conversations with you. If you don’t talk to me, I wouldn’t talk to you because some people don’t even want to allow the stereo on; they want absolute silence. I’m like a chameleon, I adapt to whatever environment the rider wants.
Fast forward to 2021, do you still have people who turn down your ride solely based on the fact that you’re a woman?
Yes, and they don’t give me a reason why they do. I’ve only gotten feedback from a lady who tried to cancel. She couldn’t evade me as I was the only driver in her entire vicinity, so she had to get in my car at the end of the day. Of course I asked her about it because I just wanted to know what I was doing wrong. Her reason was that most female drivers are rude. This came as a shock to me because I have never been rude unprovoked. I gave her an analogy; I asked her if she’s ever had her heart broken by a man, to which she replied yes. I proceeded to ask if she tried again after that, she replied yes. Then I told her that in life you just have to keep trying and there’s a danger in generalising and coming to a hasty conclusion instead of treating people individually.
Other people don’t like female drivers because they have a perception that we are slow. Again, that is false because I try to move as responsibly fast as I can. I like to think I’m the fastest driver I know *laughs*. I enjoy proving those kinds of people wrong.
When you are not on the road, what do you do?
Netflix and chill *laughs*. It’s a good way to unwind for me.
A lot of people say they love their jobs even when in reality they are bored and don’t enjoy it as they once did. Would you say you enjoy what you do and what are your biggest takeaways?
I do. I really do love my job. It has exposed me to so many things, I’ve met different types of characters in my life. If I got married today, most of my wedding guests would be my customers and clients *laughs*. Eventually, I’m going to leave it someday but even when I do, I’m still going into a business that’s going to involve interacting with people because I love doing that. I love picking my customers’ brains for ideas or offering them ideas. Like I’ve mentioned, I have been in on a few businesses even whilst on the job. I’ve sold a car for a client, I’ve delved into real estate and rented a few houses, I’ve done deliveries. I began trading cryptocurrency and one of my customers put me on it. The networking opportunities are so surreal. I love my job a lot.
You’re a trailblazer and trendsetter by all means. What advice do you have for young girls who are looking to carve a career path for themselves in traditionally male-dominated industries?
If you can do it, what the heck; go for it! I don’t know how to advice young people *laughs* but I believe everyone can do whatever they want to do regardless of their gender. If you can do it, just do it. If I didn’t love driving, I wouldn’t have gone for that exam. I went because I love driving and believe strongly that I’m a very good driver. So if you are passionate about something, it doesn’t matter that women before you weren’t doing it, you just do it.