Why? Because we met Maj. Our need for wheels to get us around town led to the discovery of a taxi service with a particularly catchy name: Taxi Sister. It turns out that there are 15 of these taxi sisters, of which Maj is a member, driving around town in seemingly new and comfortable Chinese-made cars. The catch, as you may have already guessed it: the taxi drivers are all women.
While it may not be uncommon to see female taxi drivers in other parts of the world, in Senegal the job of getting people from point A to point B by wheeled-vehicle is exclusively reserved to men. That is until President Abdoulaye Wade decided that female entrepreneurship in the country needed a boost and in September 2007 sponsored a small programme which saw an initial 10 women awarded credit to each purchase one Chinese Chery QQ on government credit, on which they are required to make monthly payments for five years or until they have fully paid off the 7 350 000 FCFA (11 205 Euros) cost of the car; the car from that point on is theirs. The women are free to manage their business as they see fit, but generally they work with hotels and resorts and only during the hours of 7am and 7pm to ensure their safety.
So how is this programme doing two and a half years after its initial launch date? Despite the initial plans for a large-scale operation (some sources cite that 2000 women were originally targeted), the programme has remained modest. In fact, only one expansion occurred (in 2009) where an additional five women were brought into the programme.
While receiving credit to launch their business has been great, life as a taxi driver for these women has not been so easy. Oumy, another taxi sister, complained about hostility from other male drivers, and although it has subsided, it was clear to us that two groups had emerged among Dakarois: those supporting the women entrepreneurs and those who find that their position as entrepreneurs themselves has been compromised. While driving on the highway for instance from the South of the city to the North, road workers waved in a friendly manner to our driver to demonstrate which of the two sides they supported. The women also pointed to the fact that they still feel tension with their male counterparts and although nothing serious has happened to them so far, the prospect of picking up the wrong client is still ever-present for them.
The link with progress? Despite its modest size, the undertaking is a huge collective psychological step for a country whose population is 95% Muslim and where most economic decisions are made by men. The programme has also been a step in providing more female training in ways that might benefit them outside of the taxi service: mechanical knowledge, business planning, money management. The hope is that women will go on to attack male-dominated professions and pave the way for better equality in pay in all sectors. For now, the hope is that the small programme will encourage more women to drive taxis.
But can Taxi Sister really make a difference? Are these types of public programmes worth it? Shouldn’t the government be focusing on the core causes of the problem and not just merely on fixing the symptoms? This is probably part of a larger debate, and for now the programme is likely too small to make any direct conclusions. Change, at least in the short term is unlikely to be noticeable. For now though, 15 women drive around the plateau amongst the busy hustle and bustle of this African capital, winning their daily bread, and perhaps even a little pride.
Jason and Johannes