Maverick Life

Lifeline in the Age of Covid: Behind the wheel with food-delivery frontliners

By Catherine Del Monte 24 January 2021

Szymon Fischer for Unsplash

Since the beginning of the pandemic food deliveries have become a ‘safer’ way to dine. Behind every order and the finale on your doorstep is an orchestra, carefully conducted by hard-working delivery drivers.

When Port Elizabeth-based Ndaba Ndzombane’s entire household was gripped by Covid-19 and plunged into quarantine, the family turned to home-delivery services such as Checkers Sixty60 for groceries and other essential items. 

Ndzombane’s experience is not unique. Since the pandemic struck and South Africa went into lockdown in March 2020, deliveries – particularly of groceries and fast food – have surged and are projected to continue to be a preferred way to shop post-Covid.

While the exact figures are difficult to come by, according to Bizcommunity data released by Pitchbook on the US online grocery market show a 450% increase in global online grocery deliveries and pick-ups in just nine months – from $1.2bn in August 2019 to $6.6bn in May 2020.

According to the same article, despite a slight decline shown by Google Analytics in online searches for online grocery and delivery services as South Africa’s lockdown restrictions lifted, online searches are still twice as popular as they were before lockdown, as local players including OneCart, Checkers Sixty60, Bottles, Quench and Zulzi report a 200-500% growth in daily orders since March 2020. 

Customer success manager of up-and-coming South African delivery service Picup Bunna Booyens reports a significant increase in deliveries since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

“Some of our customers in the online food delivery space have seen a surge in volume of up to 30% over a few weeks. This is as a result of the general public adhering to social-distancing measures and opting for a contactless home delivery as opposed to walking into a shop where there is a greater risk of contracting the virus. On the flipside we have seen a decrease in alcohol deliveries due to the alcohol ban [although] this is only true when the ban is in effect – when bans are lifted alcohol delivery volumes soar,” ,” says Booyens.

“We have always predicted exponential growth in the last-mile delivery industry, but have realised explosive growth instead.”

Marketing manager Emma Dittmer at national meal-kit delivery service UCOOK (which outsources to Picup) says they recorded “a huge increase” in orders in 2020: “The numbers have flattened a little but are still well above target. Seems habits have stuck.”

The managing director of Cape Town-based plastic-free grocer Nude Foods, Paul Rubin, has a similar tale to tell: “Pre-March 2020 and essentially pre-Covid 2020 we didn’t offer online orders and home delivery, but all that changed quickly and it is essentially what helped keep the business afloat.

“From March to August, 50% of all our sales were online or telephonic, with home delivery. Now that lockdown has eased that number has only dropped by 20%.”

Solomon Makusha, in-house delivery driver at Massimo’s, has been delivering pizzas for the Hout Bay pizzeria for seven months. He also drives staff home every night. The curfew has severely affected the hours he can work, shaving off three. 

“If every customer tips you 10% of the bill, on a good day, working only three hours with good bills is enough, but otherwise it is tough,” says Makusha, who is from Zimbabwe.

“A big challenge for me is not tipping, and in the current health climate customers not wearing masks when they come to the door, although they do apologise. Another one is when trying to call the customer and the phone is on voicemail and there’s no intercom – especially when it is windy.

“But for me, it is also the best thing to wake up every day delivering food to the same customer. It is like a family. I don’t need Google Maps. Some make it easier by paying with SnapScan or card tapping so that no contact is needed… Last but not least, they are good people. They support us in this difficult time and they ask if I get my tips when they pay through the machine or SnapScan. To me they are regulars.”

In Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, Chantal Rooza, who lives in Rondebosch East with her daughter, has been working for four courier companies including Picup, Uber Eats, the TakealotSuperbalistMr Delivery group, and WumDrop for the past year. 

Rooza works 12- to 14-hour days because “the only way you are going to reap the benefits is if you put in long hours”.

“In February [2020] I found myself unemployed and needed to earn a living. I started with Picup. At the beginning, things were a little slow and I got very few trips because I do not own a bakkie or panel van – I drive a sedan – and second, I was finding my way around different companies with different methods of working,” she explains.

Driving down Kloof Street or at a robot in Gardens you will notice pods of scooters ready and waiting for a “ping” indicating their next job. “Uber Eats and Mr Delivery drivers need to park in areas that are busy, where there are restaurants that are connected to the app,” Rooza explains. 

According to her, Uber Eats and Mr Delivery work on the same “lottery” concept – the driver closest to the parcel wins the trip – but there are differences in their respective models.

“With Mr Delivery you get a set amount per delivery. You work within an 8km radius for food pick-up and drop-off. In some instances, you could pick up and then walk the delivery to the drop-off point, and in some instances, you would ride from Claremont to Pinelands as long as it is within the 8km.

“Uber Eats is less limiting in that you get a fee for picking up and dropping off the food, which is a set amount, and then you get paid per kilometre because you are not confined to a certain radius like with Mr Delivery. How far you travel is up to you. You can log onto the app anywhere and deliver anywhere.”

Challenges of life on the road

“I was entering a man’s world. Basically, just men did [delivery driving] and the majority of delivery drivers are still men. But I believe whatever a man can do, I can do. Sometimes it gets the better of me with incredibly heavy parcels and I just have to ask for help,” says Rooza.

Restaurant delays, and their effect on drivers’ pay, are a frequent challenge. Rooza says restaurants are sometimes so inundated with orders that they battle to keep up, creating delays for the drivers. “Drivers get irritated because you are on a time limit and if your order is late, you pay for it. Time is money. You don’t get paid per hour, you get paid per order so it is really important to be on time because you want to push for the next order.

“One moment that stands out for me was at a pizza restaurant in Cavendish that was running a promotion one night. The restaurant had 45 minutes to make the pizza and I had to pick up five pizzas. I ended up waiting an hour and half and I wasn’t alone – there were about 10 to 15 drivers waiting. I eventually got the pizza, arrived at the customer and the woman was just beside herself with frustration. She said she had ordered food from another place, wasn’t going to pay for the pizzas, and banged the door in my face. It was a terrible feeling that still stands out in my mind, but I guess the upside was I took home five pizzas at 10 in the evening for my daughter and I to share.”

“Office politics” are also high on the list of delivery job challenges, says Rooza as she recounts patronising restaurant staff and inconsiderate customers. 

“I think customers sometimes just don’t understand the ‘outside’ obstacles delivery drivers face. Sometimes it’s raining or there are delays at the restaurant. I think there is a misconception that we walk into the restaurant, get the food and know exactly where the drop-off place is. There is a lot that is beyond our control that doesn’t get taken into account. I don’t know if the mentality is that the company sponsors your airtime and data but this is not the case. It comes out of our own pocket.

“On the latter, what restaurant staff forget is that if I don’t deliver on time the customer won’t order from that restaurant again, so it is doing the restaurant a disservice. However, you have to pick your battles because everyone in the restaurant and delivery business is working long hours and patience is often worn thin.”

Being on the road full time also means seeing things nine-to-fivers ordinarily don’t, and coping with the consequences of often horrific episodes. 

“There is an incident I will never forget,” says Rooza. “It was about 7pm in the middle of winter. It was raining hard. I was driving towards Claremont and on my way, close to the Newlands SAB brewery, those trucks park along the road, you know. There was a delivery motorbike and I don’t know if he didn’t see if the truck was stationary but he was going quite a speed and rode straight into the back of the truck and snapped his neck. His body was pinned between the back of the truck and the motorbike and his food bag was still there with the food he was due to deliver. It stuck with me because this man was out here trying to earn a living, in the cold and pouring rain on a motorbike, and he was probably rushing to drop off his order to get to the next one – and that was the end of him. Just like that. It was such an eye-opener.”

Image Malibongwe Tyilo

The majors

“With regards to Mr Delivery and Uber Eats, sometimes you go home with restaurant food you aren’t usually able to afford and would never order. In some cases orders are cancelled or duplicates orders are made and drivers get to take the food home with them,” says Rooza.

In the beginning, tips are good and “most of the time customers are friendly. Most tips come via the app but some are so grateful that they tip you again at the door. I would say 90% of customers are very appreciative of you delivering their food. I promise you, sometimes the tips were more than what you actually made from the full order.”

However, as lockdown eased people stopped tipping. “If everybody just gave a delivery driver R10 it would help because it is cash in your pocket –  because remember, we have to pay for petrol and airtime… For us, it says you appreciate the person delivering your food. Although we do get paid, it is a very small amount so tips mean a lot.”

While abroad in the Global North food delivery is a big part of the gig economy and is seen as a bridge between part-time and permanent employment, or as a way for tertiary students to make pocket money over the weekends, in South Africa deliveries are full-time employment for many – sometimes second or third jobs, to make ends meet. 

In 2021 Rooza will be working part-time for Uber Eats and Mr Delivery because she will be starting a new job in the financial industry. “When I handed in my resignation at Mr Delivery and thanked them for the opportunity, they gave me the option of working part-time in the evenings or over the weekend.”

In  a year “in the driver’s seat” gave her an opportunity to learn about South Africa’s food frontliners: “I have the utmost respect for delivery drivers… I see them through different eyes. 

 “A lot of these guys have professional training in other avenues and degrees. One of the delivery drivers I met is a civil engineer and was not able to find work in the line he studied for when he moved here. Another guy is busy studying human resources with what he earns from deliveries. They came to South Africa for better opportunities and the fact that they are working despite it not being the work they initially came here for is admirable. They are out here every day without taking a single sick day because in this line of work you don’t get paid if you take off sick. They are extremely hard workers.”

Kenny Kayi Nsumbu from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been working 14-hour shifts as a delivery driver for eight years since moving to Cape Town. 

“When I moved from the DRC I only learned everything here and even started this job while I was a newcomer in Cape Town without even knowing English, so this job also helped me to learn English faster,” he says.

The daily challenges Nsumbu faces include navigating heavy traffic, incorrect delivery address and difficulty getting hold of customers when addresses are incorrect or doorbells aren’t working. 

In addition, restaurant kitchen delays mean “food is not ready on time, which affects drop-off time and in the end, our tips are often where we earn most of our money”.

“From the customer, I have often been met with rudeness or unwelcoming behaviour. The worst was a day I ran late with a delivery due to a restaurant delay and the customer, without asking the cause, was very upset, insulted me and even ended up chasing me with her dogs.”

Nsumbu’s favourite moments on the job include seeing customers happy, getting tipped and “being able to accomplish a delivery on time”.

Today, Nsumbu is top of his craft and trains delivery drivers for various delivery companies. 

These are the Hermes and Irises of our food, medicine and other essential deliveries, and this is their silent but indispensable work. DM/ML


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