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Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations
JEDDAH: June 24, 2018 was a changing point in Saudi Arabia. As the ban on women driving was lifted, and female drivers got behind the wheel, it was one of the standout moments for the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program.
Female-only car showrooms followed; thousands of women signed up for lessons and driving licenses, Saudi women competed in professional racing competitions and American carmaker General Motors told Arab News last month that 65 percent of the buyers for one of its models were all women.
Therefore, with the advent of disruptive digital platforms like Uber and Careem, it was only a matter of time before a female-only version, with female drivers for passengers, was born.
Leena was officially granted a license by the Saudi government in April 2019 and began operations in June last year.
The company provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named “Captainahs” — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.
Despite launching at the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, demand has been high, with the company reporting average month-on-month growth of over 25 percent.
Leena was founded by a small group of young colleagues whose primary objective was to offer women a comfortable alternative, while also maintaining their independence.
“We came up with the idea in 2018, around the time women were granted the right to drive,” the CEO and co-founder of Leena, Mohammed Al-Aqeel, told Arab News. “We were debating all the pros and cons of creating an organization centered around women and driving, and found an overwhelming amount of pros — one of which would be to contribute in decreasing the percentage of unemployment among women.”
Despite all the positives, Al-Aqeel’s research found that common negatives from women were complaints about harassment, a lack of privacy and, at worst, even violence, when they took regular taxis.
While everything was ready to launch in 2019, Al-Aqeel said the pandemic did create a lot challenges, but the team has addressed them.
“Every registered ‘Captainah’ is immediately informed of the new regulations and terms related to COVID-19 that they must adhere to,” he said, adding that while the authorities have not made it mandatory for drivers to be vaccinated, Leena has encouraged all “Captainahs” to do so, and the majority have had their injections.
Initial demand has proved positive, to the extent that the company often does not have enough drivers to meet the number of ride requests. “Our demographic of drivers are women and we have to understand that a lot of them have familial responsibilities which they will prioritize, and since ‘Captainahs’ are freelance workers, they have the freedom to choose their own working hours to help accommodate their personal lives,” Al-Aqeel said, adding that the company is working on this issue, and has a backlog of new drivers waiting approval to receive their licenses and join the team.
Leena is also planning to launch a marketing recruitment campaign soon to attract more drivers. “We expected to do well just based on the surveys and studies we did when Leena was only an idea, and we found an overwhelming majority of people like the idea and are in support of it,” Al-Aqeel said.
Leena has been self-financed but in order to expand to the next level it will need to look at external options. “As of today, all finances that have gone into Leena are from our own initial capital. The team and I are about to embark on an investment round to find investors to sell shares to,” Al-Aqeel said.
Looking to the future, regional rival Careem was bought by Uber for $3.1 billion. Al-Aqeel said he would be interested in an approach, but he is reluctant to sell Leena outright.
“Of course, if we had an offer we would consider it and discuss it as a team, but we won’t compromise or dispense Leena’s initial mission and cause.
We will have conditions, one of them being that Leena stays exclusive to women,” he said. “We have thought of an exit strategy, but we will preserve some shares in the company. We won’t sell the entire company.”