More than just a way to beat Jakarta's traffic woes, motorcycle taxi apps are having a life-changing impact on some of the city's poor, Samantha Yap finds out.
JAKARTA: It’s 12pm, just after the morning peak hour rush in Jakarta, and Hasana is riding her shiny blue Honda motorcycle up the narrow alley to her single-storey home, in a sub-district of South Jakarta.
She wears a bright green helmet over her pink headscarf, and a green jacket with “GO-JEK” spelt out in bold, white lettering on the back. The 30-year-old mother has barely brought her bike to a stop, when two excited young children run up and greet her by touching hand to forehead.
Hasana smiles. She's glad for a few hours with Raihan, five, and Sakilah, three, after a busy morning zipping through the city’s congested streets, picking up passengers and ferrying them to their destination quicker than any car or taxi can in Jakarta’s infamous traffic.
The petite Hasana is a bit of an oddity in the male-dominated world of motorcycle taxis (or ‘ojek’ as they say in Indonesia). But life has been good - her shiny new Honda was bought recently with her earnings, which have rocketed since she joined Go-Jek.
For 15 years, she had slogged as a sales promotion girl at a department store, working fixed shifts with hardly any time for her children. Then, in June last year, Hasana began driving on her days off for the app-based ride-sharing service.
“It turned out, I earn more as a Go-Jek driver!” she said.
From making just 3 million rupiah (S$300) a month at her mall job - about the current minimum wage in Jakarta - she found herself raking in 1 million rupiah in just one day’s work with Go-Jek.
The potential was mind-boggling. Within a month, she had made up her mind - she quit her job to drive full-time.
Watch: How it changed Hasana's life
These days, Hasana works long hours, 14 to 16 hours a day. But, she makes around 20 million rupiah a month - nearly seven times what she used to, a veritable fortune. And, she feels happier.
“My hobby is travelling around. So it’s fun for me,” says Hasana.
She gets to choose her own schedule - which means a few hours of quality time with her son and daughter during the day. “With Go-Jek, I can work whenever I like,” says Hasana, who sends them to afternoon pre-school before going back out to catch the afternoon crowd.
Besides the new motorbike, Hasana has also been able to afford to renovate her house. She’s now saving up to bring her mother on the Haj by the end of the year.
A WAY UP FROM THE POVERTY LINE
Demand for more efficient modes of transport is high in the dense Indonesian capital city of about 10 million people.
In one 2015 study of 78 cities by Castrol, Jakarta was rated as having the worst traffic in the world.
Traditional ojeks have long provided the quickest and easiest way to zip through its congested streets, but up until recently, there was no convenient system for calling one. Passengers had to hail one down and spend time bargaining for a decent fare before even starting their journey.
That changed last year, when two major mobile apps burst on the scene: Go-Jek in January, followed by GrabBike in May.
The after-work gridlock on Jakarta's roads. (Photo: Samantha Yap)
Beyond transforming the streets of Jakarta, these ride-sharing apps are also effecting socio-economic change by helping the low-income, says Dr Cassey Lee, a Senior Fellow with the Regional Economic Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“This kind of activity provides a bit of a buffer to move people a bit further from the bottom of the poverty line, and creates a more stable income as a result,” he said.
According to the World Bank, 28.6 million Indonesians live below the poverty line, and 40 per cent of the population of 252 million remain clustered around the national poverty line.
Apps like Go-Jek and GrabBike, said Dr Lee, give Indonesians in the bottom 40 per cent an easy avenue to earning a higher income and greater financial security.
HE NOW EARNS 10 TIMES MORE
Rudianto is one such example.
He used to work in construction, making just 1.8 million rupiah (S$180) a month.
When he joined GrabBike as a driver in May 2015, he didn’t even have a bank account to his name - he stashed his cash savings in various cupboards and drawers in his home. (According to World Bank data, in 2014, just 36 per cent of Indonesians had an account at a financial institution.)
Rudianto, a former construction worker turned GrabBike driver. (Photo: Samantha Yap)
Grab lets customers pay in cash or credit, and Rudianto found himself in a bind when they opted for the latter.
“After working for one day, I thought I was working for free! But I was shocked to see the credit balance (on the app) grow. Every time I sent a passenger, more credit was added. It grew and grew to the point where I wondered whether I could really take this money out,” the 26-year-old recalls.
Anxious, he approached the Grab office, and was gratefully surprised when they encashed his credit balance. “It turned out to be real!”
He proudly adds: “I now have a bank account and an ATM card. And I have learned how to use an ATM machine.”
Becoming more financially literate is probably important now that he has funds rolling in. Rudianto says he can make 18 million rupiah a month, or 10 times what he used to as a construction worker.
It depends, he adds, on how hard he feels like working - and at the moment it seems like that’s pretty hard.
Just before our interview, he decides to squeeze in one more passenger for the morning. When he arrives home - a rented room in Central Jakarta, where he lives with his wife Eka and their 6-year-old son, Rasya - he’s tired and sweating as he removes his helmet, jacket and gloves.
He’ll spend a couple of hours beside his napping son, watching television, before he heads out to face the afternoon rush on his flashy, pimped-up motorcycle with blinking lights to boot.
Watch: Rudianto makes a change
On the wall above Rudianto hangs his GrabBike safety riding test certificate and a framed photo of him accepting his GrabBike Elite Driver award. It’s given to the company’s most active drivers who meet the highest service standards.
His goal is to save up enough to start his own chicken farm. Every two weeks, just to see how much he has, Rudianto checks his bank account balance on his smart phone. That’s another thing he’s learning to master.
“Before, I just knew how to use it for chatting and Facebook. I didn’t know that you can read the news on the Internet, or use the map application for help with navigation,” he says.
“Now I know that the smartphone is a great tool.”
DRIVING SALES FOR SMALL BUSINESSES
It’s not just individuals like Rudianto, but also small businesses that are suddenly seeing a way to make much more money with the advent of ride-sharing apps.
From lunch to home massage services, these can all be delivered to customers’ doorsteps by ojek drivers.
Hasana, for instance, carries a green delivery box backpack with the slogan ‘An Ojek for Every Need’. When she accepts a food order via the app, she will go to the restaurant or food stall, make the order, pay for it and deliver it to the customer, for an average delivery fee of 9,000 rupiah.
It’s a win-win-win: Customers do not have to deal with traffic, drivers make money from the extra service, and business owners can reach more patrons.
Take Martabakku Menteng, a popular martabak stall in Central Jakarta’s most affluent neighbourhood. Its speciality is a stuffed-pancake delicacy common across Indonesia, and business has thrived on Go-Jek’s Go-Food function.
It’s 10.30am, half an hour before the stall opens, and drivers are already lining up to place orders for their customers. “Around 30 to 40 per cent of our sales come from Go-Food orders,” says store supervisor Donih.
Watch: Martabakku's business boom
Cooks in yellow uniform whizz around the kitchen refilling multiple hot pans with batter, while others sprinkle toppings on cooked pancakes, slice them and box them up to go.
Meanwhile, Go-Jek drivers sit back, relax, have a cigarette and charge their phone batteries as they settle in for the long wait. Even with a separate dedicated deliveries-only counter, Donih says the wait can be as long as 90 minutes, so brisk is business.
When Go-Jek drivers accept an order, they cannot take any other jobs until it is completed. One driver, Wally, says: “Even if we’re bored there’s nothing we can do about it. We have to be patient.”
The long wait for martabak. (Photo: Samantha Yap)
BACKLASH AND REGULATIONS
Grab’s co-founder Tan Hooi Ling says that Indonesia is the company’s “fastest growing market by far… in terms of revenue, market share, everything”. “We only entered a year and a half ago, and already our services have ballooned and exploded,” she adds.
But it has not been a smooth ride for ride-sharing applications in Indonesia.
When the apps first launched, Go-Jek and GrabBike drivers faced violent backlash from traditional ojek drivers who guarded their territory jealously. In March this year, thousands of Indonesian cab drivers halted traffic in central Jakarta to protest against Uber and other ride-hailing apps including Go-Jek and Grab.
Taxi drivers protesting in March 2016 (Photo: AP)
“It’s obviously disruptive. Nobody likes their business to be eroded,” said Dr Cassey Lee. However, he added, “it’s not something you can fight. It’s obviously beneficial to consumers. I would see it as pro-development in terms of giving people greater access to opportunities.”
In his academic paper on the sharing economy in Southeast Asia, “To Uberise or not to Uberise”, Dr Lee warns of over-regulating these ride sharing companies and reducing the flexibility of the market.
He said: “I think what governments should do is to engage the private sector and understand how (they) self-regulate, and figure out where do you draw the boundary on how much and what to regulate.”
In Indonesia, new regulations on ride-hailing apps are expected to kick in in October, but for now do not cover motorcycle services. Still, Go-Jek and GrabBike have found it in their interest to self-regulate to an extent.
Not everyone, for example, can simply join up as drivers.
Rudianto had to fulfil a number of tests and requirements. He was required to provide his identity card and motorcycle driver licence, among other things. He also had to be in good health, be able to read and write, and own a motorbike that meets the company’s standards.
Then he had to pass a defensive safety-riding test used by GrabBike to screen new bikers. (In 2015, 36 per cent of road deaths in Indonesia were caused by two- or three-wheeled vehicles.) Grab says it is taking a “proactive approach to ensure the passengers’ safety are covered start to end”, from screening to insurance.
As for the drivers, they enjoy health and accident coverage. Go-Jek also gives drivers - they call them “partners” - zero-interest loans to buy smartphones.
But there are some things drivers like Rudianto have to learn to grapple with on their own.
“I picked up a male passenger from Kota Kasabalanca. Halfway through the ride, he started holding on to me in inappropriate places, like around my stomach and waist,” Rudianto recalls.
He politely told his passenger to respect his personal space. But when it happened again, Rudianto stopped, got off and told the man firmly: “Sir, do you want me to send you to your destination or do you want to get off here?” The passenger apologised.
As a woman motorcycle taxi driver, one of the rare few, Hasana gets quite a different treatment from her passengers.
Some men are too proud to accept a ride from her. “They take over as the driver, so I become the passenger instead,” Hasana laughs.
“So then I tell the guy, ‘Don’t worry about paying for the ride.’ Then he says, ‘If I don’t pay, how are you going to pay for petrol?’ Well, if he’s willing to pay for the ride then I’ll take the money.”
She herself is not fussed about who her passengers are, male or female. Thanks to the booming new sharing economy, she is happy to continue earning an income far above the minimum wage.
“For me I’ll work as long as the customer wants it,” she says.