Can ride-sharing apps empower Cambodian women?

PHNOM PENH (The Phnom Penh Post/ANN) – Chheng Dani’s six-year-old son was growing restless in the passenger seat of her taxi as she snaked through traffic on Phnom Penh’s Preah Suramarit Boulevard in a race against the clock to deliver passengers to their destinations recently.

The younger Chheng climbed on top of the headrest and played peek-a-boo with the passengers in the backseat, as his mother’s iPhone played cartoons for him on YouTube.

“I need to use my phone now,” she told him as she briefly switched apps back to Waze so she could decide the best route for the trip.

The lapse in entertainment encouraged the boy to leap onto the centre console and make-believe that he can shoot webs from his hands like Spiderman.

It’s an unusual sight in a taxi, and a world away from how Dani grew up.

Dani says she has never seen another woman driving a tuk-tuk. – YOUSOS APDOULRASHIM

“I remember my dad used to put me inside a giant cooking pot when the floodwaters would come into my house. I loved it, I would float around in the kitchen with the ducks and play with them,” the 28-year-old recalled.

“I’d only learn during school hours, then I’d come home and tend to the cows and ducks for most of the afternoon before finally coming home for dinner after the sun had set.”

Dani didn’t write her final exams because she was arranged to be married when she was just 18 years old, saying, “I loved studying mathematics, but I got married before I could write my final exams in my last year in high school. After I got married, we moved from Kampot to Oddar Meanchey province because my husband’s sister lived there and started selling gasoline on the side of the road.”

Six months after moving, Dani fell pregnant. But while the business was thriving, marital problems began to arise, leading to a divorce.

“We sold everything, including the house we had just built and had USD600 between us. I took USD300 and my boy and we left for Phnom Penh,” she said.

She initially found work in a garment factory, renting a small room in their dormitory. What followed was a succession of odd-jobs before she stumbled across the ride-sharing industry through a friend.

“I heard from my friend while we were working at Metfone that there was money to be made driving tuk-tuks, so I thought I would give it a shot,” she said.

She took out a USD3,000 micro-finance loan to buy the tuk-tuk, and set up shop with a slew of ride hailing apps at her disposal.

Her son would often accompany her after he had finished school, completing his English homework in the back seat of the tuk-tuk next to passengers, taking naps in the cargo area used to stow luggage.

“I would wake up in the morning, make my son and I some breakfast before dropping him off to school and start picking up passengers,” she said.

Earning roughly USD20-30 a day through her selection of apps, in seven short months, she paid off the loan and was able to upgrade to her current vehicle.

Now the proud owner of a 2002 creme brulee mica-coloured Toyota Camry LE – complete with leather seats and wood-trim – Dani owes a lot to the cherry-red Indian-style Bajaj RE tuk-tuk that got her started.

The Phnom Penh Post previously reported that the kingdom’s Indian-style tuk-tuks will grow to more than 35,000 this year, as the ride-sharing app market balloons in Cambodia, as well as worldwide.

But despite this, driving taxis and tuk-tuks – as well as the wider ride-sharing industry – remains an almost exclusively male domain.

There have been attempts to address the disparity globally. Most notable is ride-sharing app Safr, launched in the American city of Boston in 2017, allowing drivers and riders to choose the preferred gender of the person they will be sharing the vehicle with.

But inclusive initiatives such as these remain a distant prospect in the kingdom. In fact, Dani said she is yet to see another woman behind the wheels of a tuk-tuk.

She said she hopes to set an example for other Cambodian women.

“Working as a tuk-tuk driver appealed to me because I don’t want to work for anyone else, and it gives me the freedom to choose which hours I work . . . more women should consider giving it a try,” she said.