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The man who established Somaliland's 'yellow cab' service

By Sean Williams, for CNN
updated 5:44 AM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
Abdikarim Salah Mohamud left Somaliland in 1988 for Melbourne and returned 23 years later to start Hargeisa Taxi.
Abdikarim Salah Mohamud left Somaliland in 1988 for Melbourne and returned 23 years later to start Hargeisa Taxi.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abdikarim Salah Mohamud started Hargeisa Taxi in 2012
  • Taxi tires have to be changed every two weeks due to rugged roads
  • Mohamud thinks that his jonquil taxis will remind people of the yellow cabs in New York or Melbourne
  • A new airport and discovery of mineral resources are set to change capital city of Somaliland

(CNN) -- It's a typically buttoned-up, breezy night in Hargeisa when a child is born in one of Abdikarim Salah Mohamud's minivan cabs.

The cab's driver stands at the side of a dusty backstreet.

It's 3 a.m.

In the back of the minivan lies a young woman and her newborn son, his impromptu arrival relayed anxiously via phone to the Hargeisa Taxi office.

Mohamud's assistant, a soft-spoken beanpole called Ahmed, coaches his charge calmly throughout as the baby makes his unscripted world debut.

"No one even woke me!" Mohamud says.

Ahmed sits next to him and smiles, presumably at his own professionalism: "The roads probably did it for her."

Click to enlarge  Click to enlarge
Click to enlargeClick to enlarge

Hargeisa is the capital city of Somaliland, a breakaway state that clamors for independence from its terror-torn neighbor -- Somalia.

Shattered by decades of civil war, dictatorship and terror, the city is racing toward a better future: bright new office blocks poke out from the desert and markets, once empty, throng daily.

But there's still only one well-paved street in Hargeisa.

Every other one is a chalky, rock-strewn dirt track, bullying cars into early retirement.

It's a tough place to found a taxi service; tougher still if, like Mohamud, you're intent on giving Somaliland a cab service fit for a Western city.

Evil roads

Hargeisa Taxi wants to bring a little \
Hargeisa Taxi wants to bring a little "yellow cab" color to Somaliland.

"Every second week we have to change the cars' tires because of the roads," Mohamud tells me at his villa on the edge of town, air thick with the smell of sweet Somali tea.

He's a small, rawboned man, sharply dressed with a shaven head and a deep, booming voice.

"Maintenance here is tough," he says. "The shock absorbers take a big hit."

Hargeisa's roads may have put many a dent in Mohamud's cars.

But they haven't broken a dream, made in Melbourne where he drove a cab for more than two decades, to make taxis accessible to all Hargeisans rather than to simply a small elite.

Hargeisa Taxi recently celebrated a year in business.

READ: Is this the world's most awesome taxi?

Before then traveling across town was different.

"When we started out, Hargeisa had a few unmarked cabs," he says. "If you didn't speak Somali you wouldn't know which one was a taxi and which was a private car. We wanted to change that.

"The price of a cab from Hargeisa city center to where we are now cost about 100,000 Somaliland shillings," says Mohamud. "That's the equivalent of $15, a lot even for Melbourne. But that was the deal: you paid $15 or you walked.

"There were only five taxi stands in the city, so you had to get to one first," he adds. "Even without the fare being the issue, how are you going to get a cab?

"The world has moved on. We are in 2014."

Hargeisa Taxi knocked 80 percent off the fare, a feat advertised across the back of every one of its car: ANYWHERE ANYTIME $3.

Cabs are ordered by cell phone, one of few modern technologies ubiquitous in Somaliland.

Even nomadic farmers make deals on their handsets these days -- a sign of progress in a state that's suffered more than most the past century.

Long road to business ownership

From British rule to united Somalia in 1960, Somaliland has clambered toward quasi-independence past the brutal dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, which ended more than two decades ago, and numerous failed insurgencies by Al Qaeda affiliate group Al Shabaab.

It remains, officially, a region of Somalia.

But while Mogadishu's fragile government lays besieged by deadly terror attacks, Somaliland hasn't suffered an attack in four years.

Mohamud left Hargeisa in 1988 at age 17 to study communications in Melbourne, becoming one of the million or so members of the Somali diaspora.

To make money he drove cabs -- a job he'd continue part time for the next 23 years.

When he returned home in May 2011 to work on a project for a local TV station, the draw of a safer Somaliland was strong.

"'This is home,' I said to my wife. 'I have to come back.'"

Six months later Mohamud resigned from his media job in Melbourne and seven months after that, using money he'd saved in Australia, Hargeisa Taxi was up and running.

There\'s only one well-paved street in Hargeisa.
There's only one well-paved street in Hargeisa.

MORE: Which city has the world's best taxis?

Starting a company in a country that doesn't exist, unsurprisingly, is no smooth ride.

"Here business is about who you know," Mohamud says. "Money is not the issue. It takes time."

Employment problems

Unemployment is a big worry across Somaliland.

Some fear it could drag Hargeisa's young men toward Al Shabaab's deadly campaigns, which currently bubble just beyond the border with Somaliland's partially autonomous eastern neighbor, Puntland.

Returning diaspora members such as Mohamud, however, are driving Somaliland away from its turbulent past, pushing its economy into the black and providing low-level employment.

This feels especially vital in a religiously conservative region where families often reach double figures.

"The youngest of our drivers is 24 and he has two kids," Mohamud says as his own little girl, the youngest of five children, clambers all over him.

"The oldest guy has eleven. There are a total of 122 kids served by the company. Hargeisa Taxi feeds them, puts them in school uniforms, gives them books, everything. I'm very happy."

Security in Hargeisa has also changed.

Not long ago violence and crime were rife and all foreigners were mandated to travel with an SPU, or Special Police Unit -- often little more than a vigilante with a rusty AK-47.

MORE: Tony Wheeler's top 5 edgy destinations

Now it's rare to see anyone other than military personnel wielding a firearm.

Mohamud believes his cabs are helping the shift toward peace.

"Before, if the driver took your bag or your money, you didn't know who he was," he says. "Today, every driver has an ID card and a police check to ensure he's never been a criminal."

Taxis first, infrastructure later

Hargeisa is still well off the beaten track.

A new airport and the discovery of mineral resources may change that.

The city itself is a dusty oasis crammed full of roadside cafes and markets selling handmade goods.

A few miles outside Hargeisa is Laas Geel, a series of ancient hand-painted caves.

Road signs are few.

Thankfully, Hargeisa Taxi has an answer.

"Every Hargeisa Taxi on the road has a GPS signal," Mohamud says, tapping his laptop. "We know every minute where they are. If they try taking a bad route we can switch the car off."

He's referring to a device that enables the disabling of any of the cars at the push of a button.

Hargeisa Taxi takes measures to ensure a safe ride.
Hargeisa Taxi takes measures to ensure a safe ride.

"My daughter could ride in Hargeisa alone now without me worrying about her."

Since Hargeisa Taxi began operating, three other taxi companies have popped up: Dalhis Taxi, Maroodi Jeh and Raaxo.

The latter, with its fleet of tiny Kias and Toyotas, has given Mohamud a run for his money.

But Hargeisa Taxi's 35 sedans and minivans offer greater luxury and accessibility for the elderly and disabled.

And there's no mistaking their bright, jonquil color.

"It's similar to New York or Melbourne," says Mohamud. "The idea was that people who come here -- whether they speak Somali, English, Arabic or even Chinese -- would have seen at least one movie with yellow taxis in it. We may not have the infrastructure of those cities. But we can have the taxis.

"Hargeisa is a good place. We made it worse, but it's getting better. One day we will be like London or New York -- you will come to visit us!"

Mohamud's family join him in the room, asking questions and drinking tea.

A car revs up outside.

I ask if he misses anything about Australia.

"Maybe if you ask me that question in two or three years my answer might be different," he says. "But now I have family around me. What else can you ask for?"

Sean Williams is a British writer and journalist covering topics from culture and politics to real estate and cricket.

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