Boda boda industry is key cog in our economy

Boda-boda riders on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi. Commercial motorcycles are becoming a convenient means of transport in the capital city where traffic gridlock is common. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT

On Monday afternoon as my daughter and I were leaving a hospital in Parklands we passed by Yaya Centre to purchase an OEM charger for her phone but unfortunately, it was out of stock at the dealership there. We were told that the dealership at Hilton Hotel had the charger in stock.

Not wanting to venture into the CBD at that time, my daughter called her boda-boda rider and gave him the details of the charger and where to find it. Within minutes the rider was at the shop and my daughter paid for the charger through a paybill number, instructing the rider to deliver the item at home in Karen. By the time we got home by car an hour later, the rider had arrived having run other errands elsewhere. I thought this was an extremely convenient and time-saving arrangement.

I am amazed at the proliferation of the boda-boda motorcycle in so many aspects of our everyday lives, whether it is ferrying people to their places of work, hospital, school, market or goods and parcels to various destinations. When I was admitted to hospital two years ago the boda-boda proved indispensable running errands to the bank and paying bills.

The use of boda-boda services is even more prevalent in rural areas where public transport may not be so sophisticated and the roads are not well developed.

According to the Motorcycle Assemblers Association of Kenya (MAAK), there are about 600,000 commercial motorcycles currently operating in Kenya, each earning an average of Sh1,000 a day which translates to an annual turnover of Sh219 billion. The industry is one of the biggest drivers of the economy. According to MAAK chairman Isaac Kalua, each commercial motorcycle supports eight people including the rider’s family and the numerous support service providers like mechanics, tyre suppliers, spare parts dealers and fabricators, implying about 4.8 million Kenyans are dependent on the industry.

Many of these are young people, who were previously engaged in nefarious activities and you would certainly not have wished to meet them in a dark alley, now have a regular income.

Although individual riders may not contribute directly on their own account to the exchequer, they contribute immensely through the fuel levy charged at petrol stations.

The motorcycle is a convenient and efficient way to travel, especially in towns where traffic jams are commonplace. Motorcycles are becoming a popular means of transport for non-commercial riders as well — both men and women.

I hasten to add that motorcycling is known to be prone to more danger than other forms of transport due to the inherent risk of your body being exposed to the elements and other road users as well as having only two wheels rather than four.

In other countries notably in Europe, the business is known as motorcycle courier service, which is a respectable occupation and is well regulated. They generally offer parcel services, not pillion transport.

In India, almost every middle-income family has a motorcycle for commuting. Nearer home in Rwanda, the commercial motorcycle sector is very disciplined and well-organised.

Notwithstanding the important role that the boda-boda sector plays in the economy we demonise and criminalise operators like the “enfant terrible” in our midst subjecting them to indiscriminate declarations. Not that they are entirely blameless in the way they conduct themselves on the road many of them being reckless and not obeying traffic rules and disregarding their passengers and other road users.

Most of them do not possess driving licences, insurance cover or protective riding gear.

However, in the usual Kenyan tradition, we criticise but we do not offer or illustrate solutions.

First, I would suggest that we change our attitude towards the boda-boda industry by acknowledging that the sector is an important part of our economy and impacts each one of us in one way or the other.

It is an activity which provides a livelihood for close to five million of our citizens who would otherwise be engaged in less honourable occupations.

Secondly, the industry needs to be regulated in a legal framework which meets the aspirations of the operators, customers and other road users.

The riders require to be trained and tested to qualify for a driving licence and wear the minimum protective gear as the law currently requires.

Law enforcement agencies must ensure that the operators have insurance cover, obey traffic rules and laws specific to commercial motorcycles.

The government should encourage the formation of savings and credit co-operative organisations (Saccos) by boda-boda operators, the benefits of which would be to provide a measure of self-regulation on one hand.

On the other hand, the saccos would give their members access to credit.

At the moment most riders do not own the commercial motorcycles, which belong to other parties who have employed them on a retainer basis. If the riders were able to own the motorcycles, they would then become real stakeholders in the business and likely this would spur them to be more responsible.

This way they would also be able to afford insurance cover and appropriate protective gear.

Last November, the government appointed a task force on motorcycle transport reforms to create regulations and guidelines to streamline the boda-boda sector. We await their report in due course.

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