Ideas & Debate

Changing boda boda from a menace to opportunity

boda

Motorcycle registrations rose 53 percent in five years, highlighting the growing popularity of boda boda as a means of transport and source of income. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • Boda boda came in to fill a critical gap at a time there was limited infrastructure in many parts of Kenya.
  • In 2003, the government zero rated import duty on motorcycles.
  • The effect was that motorcycles became affordable to many who hitherto could only dream of owning one.

They are everywhere. They are always on the move. They are not held back by traffic. They are the passenger motorbikes better known here as ‘boda boda’ or simply ‘boda’.

Boda boda came in to fill a critical gap at a time there was limited infrastructure in many parts of Kenya. In 2003, the government zero rated import duty on motorcycles. The effect was that motorcycles became affordable to many who hitherto could only dream of owning one.

Suddenly, rural areas, with virtually no roads, came alive. Today, for as little as Sh200, one can get a ride on a motorcycle for distances as long as 20km or more. That’s how boda boda has changed fortunes and saved people from the pain of sore feet.

It is not just rural areas that have felt the impact of motorcycles. The major urban centres such as Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu perhaps have more boda boda than all motorcycles in the rest of the country put together. In the urban areas, commuters famously use them to evade traffic.

Stories abound where people have walked out of cars and jumped onto boda boda to catch a flight at the airport or to get to an interview in time. People also use them for short trips within the central business districts or to get home where residential areas are far removed from the bus termini.

The boda boda sector has undergone some evolution in recent years, with new business models being developed. These have raised its status to something of a higher class. It is no longer associated with poor people as was the case in years gone by.

Through the Uber app, one can request a ride on Uber boda from the comfort of their office or hotel room. The ride assures timeliness, is professional, safe and there is no bargaining. The customer pays what is on the app. What is more, the rates are usually much lower than that of ordinary boda boda simply because the app eliminates time wasted without client. Other apps that have the boda option are Bolt and Taxify.

Innovation has revolutionised a sector once much maligned for lack of decency. It has also enhanced safety as the person requesting a ride must first register on the app and whenever they place a request, they are identified by name, registered mobile number and location. I predict that in the very near future all boda boda will be forced to belong to one app or the other or fall by the wayside for lack of customers. The revolution will start in urban areas then move to the rest of the country.

The new business model notwithstanding, boda boda operators in general work in constricted and often dangerous environments that threaten their wellbeing every waking day. Whereas government policy led to the mushrooming of motorcycles and instantly created thousands of jobs, the training on traffic rules and on how to operate motorcycles wasn’t well thought out.

Many operators don’t attend driving schools, have no licence and are not insured. Many learn how to ride in the morning and start carrying passengers in the afternoon with virtually zero understanding of traffic regulations.

The passengers are usually totally oblivious of the danger they are exposed to. Without motorbike lanes, bodas have to share roads with saloon cars, matatus, buses, trucks, mkokoteni pushers and pedestrians. The result is the high number of accidents, many of them fatal.

This requires policy intervention. As a first step, future road design should include motorbike lanes to protect boda boda riders and their passengers from accidents. Secondly, while getting all boda boda cyclists to attend driving school might be a tall order, one thing county governments can do is to organise continuous training for boda boda people focusing particularly on road safety.

The second challenge is pricing. Whereas the new business model has addressed the issue of pricing for those on the platform, many of the boda boda operators still have a pricing system not based on science but imagination and bargaining. Many do not save and therefore can’t invest.

They basically live from day to day. Yet, considering their numbers, there is a big opportunity for organising them into saccos and welfare groups, where members can save small amounts regularly for collective and individual investment.

Who will do this? Again, the counties have a role to play. After all, they collect taxes from the operators and it is in their interest that boda boda operators do not just survive but thrive.

Many motorbike models generally last long and the parts can be reused over and again. These are distinct advantages to boda boda owners and riders. Despite these advantages, it still makes business sense for manufacturers to think take-back schemes.

They can have a programme where the motorcycle owners pay small amounts regularly towards owning their future motorbike so that when the current ones reach their end of life, they can return them and walk out with new ones.

The manufacturers can refurbish the old bikes for low end market or use the parts to build new bikes. This is one way of realising circular economy. This, however, calls for a rethink of designs to ensure the various parts are not only durable but can easily fit in existing manufacturing processes.

Boomsma is project director, Sustainable Inclusive Business