How Careem went from Pakistan’s ride-hailing leader to stuck on the sidelines

In 2022, when Careem announced that its app had completed its billionth ride, Pakistan was the company’s top market. Nearly 30% of the billion Careem rides had come from Pakistan, where the app was synonymous with ride-hailing.

Careem — whose co-founder and CEO Mudassir Sheikha is of Pakistani origin — was so closely linked to the country that it was often assumed to be a Pakistani company in media reports and social media postsdespite being headquartered in Dubai.

Two years on, however, Careem — which was acquired by Uber in 2019 — is now a marginal player in Pakistan’s taxi wars.

Within this short span, new entrants like inDrive and Yango have taken over the ride-hailing sector in the world’s fifth most populous nation, with Careem lagging at a distant third. Careem currently has just 373,920 daily active users in Pakistan, as compared to over 2 million for inDrive, according to data analytics platform Data.ai. The company has also shut down its food delivery and digital payments businesses in Pakistan over the past two years. The country may have dropped in priority due to its unstable economic environment, Kalsoom Lakhani, a venture capitalist who has observed the Pakistani tech startup ecosystem for over a decade, told Rest of World.

“When you’re dealing with devaluation (of the Pakistani rupee) in the current (economic) environment, it looks like (Careem) would probably want to put their energy competing in places where the returns matter greater,” said Lakhani, the founder of i2i Ventures, a Pakistan-focused VC fund. According to her, Careem has been scaling back “very purposefully” in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s economy has been in a state of persistent decline since 2022. The Pakistani rupee depreciated by 20% against the dollar last year, earning the title of Asia’s worst-performing currency.

Careem remains “committed (to) offering ride-hailing services across Pakistan and earning opportunities for drivers,” a company spokesperson told Rest of World.

“Currently, we are focused on sustainable growth, and on doubling down on ride hailing by launching new products like Flexi as well as further growing our Careem For Business portfolio,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Careem For Businessa service targeted at corporate rides, was launched in Pakistan in May 2023. Careem Flexi Ride was introduced in the country in November last year — it allows customers to bid for their preferred price, similar to Yango and inDrive’s bid-based models.

But even as it has launched new features, Careem has been sunsetting its non-ride-hailing operations in Pakistan over the past two years.

In June 2022the company suspended its food delivery service in the country, citing unfavorable economic conditions. The closure of the 3-year-old service impacted hundreds of restaurants, according to local media.

In September 2023, Careem exited the fintech sector, withdrawing its electronic money institution license from Pakistan’s central bank. A company spokesperson told local media the move was part of “growing (Careem’s) ride-hailing platform in Pakistan.” The same year, UAE state-owned telecommunications company e& (formerly Etisalat) bought a majority stake in Careem’s super-app business for $400 million. Uber continues to hold full ownership of Careem’s ride-hailing vertical.

“No one is using Careem these days, and it’s because inDrive has driven the fares so low.”

One current and two former employees, who worked closely with Careem’s founders in Pakistan, told Rest of World the country is no longer a priority for the company. “We (Pakistan) will never make enough money because the value of our currency is so low,” said a member of Careem’s sales team, requesting anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Careem has taken steps that could help turn its fortunes in Pakistan.

The Flexi Ride model, only available in Pakistan and Egypt, is Careem’s response to the popularity of inDrive, according to the current and former employees. The service is currently available in four Pakistani cities, and charges drivers a 5% commission, instead of the 15% commission charged for regular rides.

“Flexi Ride has been well received by customers using the Careem app,” Careem’s spokesperson told Rest of World. “It allows them to negotiate the fare of their ride, however only within 15% above or below the average trip recommended trip fare, making sure it’s reasonable for both the customer and Captains (drivers) using the platform.”

Careem also launched several local initiatives — including a Facebook group in April 2021, where the company periodically posts updates for its drivers. In February 2023, the company held a live Q&A on Facebook where drivers could bring their complaints and suggestions to Careem’s Pakistan general manager, Muhammad Imran Saleem.

In April 2024, the company offered bonuses for its drivers during the Eid festival. “We believe Captains (drivers) are the backbone of our ecosystem, and go above and beyond for them,” Careem’s spokesperson said. “Our teams regularly engage with Captains to assist them with all their questions and concerns.”

While the bid-based model could help Careem attract customers in Pakistan, gig drivers are not too excited by it. “These bid-based applications are a trap,” Muhammad Adil, a driver from Lahore, told Rest of Worldalluding to inDrive and Yango’s apps. “What we had before … was a lot better. (Careem) had waiting charges, it showed you a fare upfront, and you didn’t have to haggle; you had a good support system.”

Still, at least 10 Pakistani gig drivers told Rest of World they want to go back to driving exclusively for Careem because it continues to pay better, but that they feel the app doesn’t have enough users. “I would go back to Careem if I could … (but) customers are all on inDrive,” said Ali Akbar Muhammad, a driver from Karachi. “No one is using Careem these days, and it’s because inDrive has driven the fares so low.”

InDrive did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Miral Sharif, Yango’s country manager for Pakistan, told Rest of World the company’s registered drivers in Pakistan have “been growing steadily at a double-digit rate month-on-month.” Yango also offers performance bonuses for drivers, and discounts and promo codes for customers, Sharif said. Launched in Pakistan in May 2023, Yango currently operates in five cities: Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Faisalabad. It had 728,406 daily active users in April 2024, according to Data.ai.

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