Tractor Ubers in the Mediterranean?
TURIN - On the way to GMF’s Mediterranean Strategy Group (MSG) in Turin, Italy, I asked my taxi driver whether there’s Uber in Turin. He told me there’s not, but this was clearly a sensitive question, provoking a passionate tirade against Uber, how it’s taking away the jobs of taxi drivers, destroying their livelihoods, and that it’s clear that it should be banned everywhere. That reaction to one of the biggest tech-based disruptive businesses of the last decade stuck with me throughout the week; especially when it stood directly at odds with another, more positive, Uber story I heard later in the week about a young entrepreneur in Nigeria who started an “Uber for tractors,” Hello Farmer. He connects tractor owners with farmers who request tractor service via SMS text messaging. This has become a huge success, doubling the productivity of farmers and empowering women to become tractor owners.
GMF is in Turin, Italy, this week hosting leading Mediterranean and digital policy makers for the 14th Mediterranean Strategy Program! Organized with our partners @compagniadisanpaolo, the OCP Policy Center, and Noble Energy, participants will discuss the question: "The Digital Mediterranean: How are Information Technologies and Policies Re-shaping a Strategic Region?" Follow along with the conversation over the next two days at #GMFmedstrat! #Italy #conference #WhereInTheWorldIsGMF #TechTalk #digital
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Coincidentally, this is exactly the topic that the Mediterranean Strategy Group asked us to address in the days following my taxi conversation. How does digital technology impact the Mediterranean? How do leaders create an environment to develop more start-ups with a social impact in the region that compliment—not destroy—vital traditional sectors? In other words, how to get more tractor Ubers while not forgetting about the Italian taxi driver?
These are not easy questions in a region where the current state of affairs is gloomy and the future looks even gloomier. According to a recent UNDP report, the youth population (aged 15-29) numbers 105 million and is growing fast, while unemployment and marginalization are growing faster. Governance remains in the hands of elites that do not want to be disrupted, leaving young people to feel disenfranchised and disconnected. Unsurprisingly, they show weakening commitment to preserving government institutions, and are much more inclined to protest, convinced that existing mechanisms for participation and accountability are useless.
But it’s a lie that this new generation is disengaged. It is the largest, most educated, and most highly urbanized in the history of the region. And thanks to social media and digital networks, they are more in tune with the world than ever, shifting the power from the governments to the street. Local initiatives, powered by digital technology, have the potential to have much more impact than federal government programs. But the number of “Mediterranean Hello Tractor’s” is still low — and a number of things will have to change to empower young entrepreneurs-to-be to develop their ideas into successful projects.
Governments should realize their approach to encouraging and enabling individuals will have to be entrepreneurial itself: adopt a new way of thinking, stop battling change, and don’t’ be afraid to fail. And the most valuable asset of any government in the Mediterranean is their human capital, those 105 million young people. Their first and primary focus, therefore, should be a drastic reform of the education system, centered on tech and digitally-focused (and non-digital) vocational programs, including creating university-based incubators. The international community can support this in terms of investment and visibility by helping to establish cross-border entrepreneurial programs, linking promising start-ups to VC and angel investors.
— Moira Whelan (@moira) December 6, 2016
But in the meantime, there’s still the Italian taxi-driver who has to compete with Uber. When he asked me if I also thought Uber should be banned, I didn’t have an answer for him. And I don’t I have an answer for him now. Digital technology is rapidly changing the way society and businesses work, and we will all need to innovate in order to survive. The dual challenge of accepting the way things are and accepting they will change has never been easy for humanity—but leaders and citizens alike must try.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.