Brothers design smart jacket for boda bodas


Cladlight chief executive Charles Muchene (right) and project manager Michael Gathogo explain how a smart jacket works. Photo/DIANA NGILA


  • Engineer and his accountant sibling develop outfit to help curb accidents in the business.

When one walks into any large hospital in Kenya, at least two patients are victims of a motorcycle accident.

The number of beds dedicated to the victims in rural hospitals, sometimes a complete ward, attest to the prevalence of these accidents.

The World Health Organisation estimates that boda boda (motorcycle taxis) account for about seven per cent of all the traffic accidents that occur in the country annually. Yet they are a necessity to reach inaccessible areas in rural and urban centres.

It is this thinking that led two brothers to come up with an innovative idea to try and reduce the fatalities.

Rather than seek to develop mobile applications to promote road safety, 25-year-old Charles Muchene, an engineering graduate, and his elder brother Joseph, a certified accountant, took it notch higher by introducing electronic clothing (e-clothing) into the Kenyan market.

“Thankfully we have not had personal experience with boda boda accidents though we have seen, through the injuries suffered by family and close friends, how devastating it can be.

“But because of the role that they play within the transport system getting them off the roads is not the solution,” Muchene says.

His brother concurs: “The main problem has always been the visibility to other motorists, especially at night and that is what we are mainly trying to address with the smart jacket.”

The outfit is similar to the reflector jacket that the law requires both motorcyclists and their passengers to wear only that it has been modified on its back with light-emitting diode (LED) connected to the motorcycle’s indicator system.

The transmitter integrated with the indicator system uses the motorcycle’s power source while the receiver in the jacket is powered by a six or nine-volt battery whose longevity depends on the frequency of use by the boda boda rider.

When the motorcyclist makes a turn indicator or applies the brakes, a signal is sent to the jacket’s receiver and the corresponding LED lights on the back of the jacket light up, making the user more visible to other road users.

Wearers of the jacket do not have to worry about cumbersome baggage of cords that would reduce their comfort while on the road because the whole device is synchronised by a wireless system.

Coming up with the right prototype for the jacket has not been easy, especially since the brothers initially had to finance it from personal saving and close family members to buy the components they needed for the device.

“We have tried a lot of components most of them were very expensive and others had to be imported or had exaggerated price tag and we had to seek cheaper local alternatives,” Muchene said.

“But most of them disappointed because they could not give the output we expected. They are not completely useless though I could probably build a whole robot with them.”

The smart jackets have already been taken to the streets and are being piloted by the riders and the team is using the feedback from the end users to improve their product.

There are two versions of the jacket targeting different markets that have been under development for the last two months. The Basic version is set to retail at Sh1,500 while the Lite version will be sold at Sh3,500.

“At the moment we have made the system in such a way that the lights are water proof. We want to do the same to the jacket so that the boda boda riders do not get soaked and opt to remove the jackets when it rains,” Muchene explained.

Both co-founders expressed optimism that their product would enter the Kenyan market before the end of the first quarter of the year.

“The cost of the jackets might go down once we start mass production and we are able to get even better and more affordable components from the external markets,” Joseph adds.

The duo has already applied for a patent for their innovation at the Kenya Industrial Property Institute and sought to register their Cladlight Company.

Venture capitalists

The brothers know too well the hustles of setting up a business and in most cases mutual agreement dictates the course of action the start-up should take, but if this cannot be done amicably they seek opinion of the more knowledgeable and more experienced expert in that particular field.

Their plan is to make money from the sales of the smart jackets as well as sell licences to other companies to produce their innovation.

In two years time they hope to have come up with a whole line of other useful wearable technology and spread their wings to the rest of East Africa.

According to Michael Gathogo, the project manager who has worked closely with the co-founders even before they developed the smart jacket, growth will provide the basis for them to access capital from venture capitalists and financial institutions in order to improve the product.

The Cladlight team is also seeking to partner with government agencies like the National Transport and Safety Authority to promote safety among the motorcyclists, which they consider part of their core mandate.

“It is good for young people to nurture the smart ideas that they have because with their innovation, they can move from being employment seekers to employers,” he said while demonstrating how the smart jacket works.