Boda bodas and the economy

Kenya’s largely informal motorbike industry remains the elephant in the transport room

By Kwame Sipul Otiende

Recently, a senior Uganda government minister attracted the ire of motorcycle riders in Kampala after he was quoted by media saying that 95% of boda boda riders in the country’s capital are “mad”.

While the minister’s characterization could be viewed as hyperbolic and even offensive, it is not short of people who would agree with him, including in Kenya where many have blamed ‘bodas’, as they’re colloquially known, for breaking traffic rules, being responsible for a rise in crime and generally a nuisance.

But while this could be true, what is equally indisputable is how vital the industry has become in Kenya and around the continent.

During the Covid-19 pandemic as businesses tried to innovate on how to operate amidst a mix of shutdowns and curfews, the established boda boda industry played a crucial role in powering the economy in almost every way.

They connected hotels and restaurants to their customers who were now ordering food from home, they were the last point of call, still are, to transport the sick to hospital, and many more examples.

Crucially it was one of the few sectors that offered employment to tens of thousands of young men left jobless as the pandemic wreaked African economies.

It’s therefore concerning that such an important industry has been often neglected by the government.

There’s no progressive policy that has been adopted to ensure the health or safety of these important workers, instead public conversation has been confined to lamentations about the bad and ugly – and yes there are many, but they pale in comparison to the positive contribution the industry makes to the economy.

The bad actors in the industry who operate with impunity only do so because laws are clearly defined or implemented, but to develop progressive and sustainable policy, history is instructive.

Boda boda’s roots lie in the cross-border trade at Busia border town in the early 1990s as people moved goods between Uganda and Kenya using bicycles, and later motorcycles. The informal commerce was happening as bureaucrats haggled about trade laws.

Failure to construct and maintain good roads also led to the popularity of boda bodas. They elegantly filed a gap in the transport industry by providing affordable, nimble door-to-door transport. It is no wonder that such an industry spawned out of chaos is itself chaotic.

The first attempt to respond to the economic contribution of the industry came in 2008, when the late President Mwai Kibaki zero-rated import duty on motorcycles of up to 250cc engine capacity, to reduce the cost of this convenient mode of transport.

A 2022 Car & General study showed one million riders rely directly on the industry, while a further six million people are supported by it. On average, one rider makes fifteen trips.

Industry-wide, this generates Sh1 billion a day – 3.4% of the country’s GDP over a year. The fuel consumed by drivers also generates Sh163million a day in the form of fuel taxes. If taxation is streamlined, there is enormous economic potential here.

Boda boda is also undeniably a major and important industry in our country. Besides the millions who derive their livelihood as riders, there are thousands of mechanics, small businesses and families who depend on this industry every day.

The industry’s notoriety is undeniable: stories of rogue hit-and-run riders and roadside lynch mobs signal an urgent need for multi-sector regulation, that will involve self-regulation and government. The government must ensure operators are registered and licensed, comprehensive insurance cover for themselves and their pillion.

SACCOs have proved an effective form of self-regulation in parts of the industry. 

This gives passengers recourse, in the event they are robbed or harassed. Some bases even paint their bikes with ID numbers as a form of self-monitoring.

Road safety is another vital issue. Riders and passengers are vulnerable to serious injuries. The most common injuries are fractures and head injuries.

Riders and police all have a responsibility to always enforce the wearing of helmets, for riders and their passengers. Rider training is another issue, especially in rural areas.

Many riders learn to ride on their own and end up on the road ignorant of traffic rules, posing a danger to other road users.

The government also has a role that should go beyond policing the riders. Our roads are poorly marked, which means other road users rarely show respect to boda boda drivers. Better road signage and safety education for all parties by the government through broadcast media and traffic police can help to curb such aggressive driving.

In counties such as Homa Bay which show a high prevalence of teenage pregnancies and Gender-Based Violence (GBV). In a bid to tackle these ‘ugly’ statistics, the health board has singled out boda boda riders.

But why?

Research shows that boda boda is the choice of chariot for lovers travelling to meet their partners in 8 of 10 cases.

Meanwhile, schoolgirls and young market traders are known to be preyed on by unscrupulous riders, who may entice vulnerable victims with free rides.

Involving riders in safe sex and gender equality campaigns will empower riders and protect girls and women.

They will become credible advocates of safe sex, be well-educated on the risks associated with having multiple partners and protect the autonomy and educational opportunities of young girls.

Finally, we come to the nightmare of criminal infiltration that the industry faces. Riders, the public and law enforcers must all work in collaboration to fight this scourge.

By bringing together all of the initiatives outlined above: registering bikes, requiring riders to wear reflectors, having base ID numbers, it will become much harder for criminals to hide under the cover of chaos. I championed these causes in a recent meeting with boda boda officials from Oyugis town, and believe they must become a nationwide initiative.

The boda boda sector needs to be professionalized, riders need to be trained, provided with safety equipment, not just high viz vests but also good quality helmets which protects drivers and their customers. It would be mad not to do everything we can to protect and professionalize this sector.   

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