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Booming business for "boda boda" bikes

In the absence of vehicles and good road networks in the rural areas of Western Kenya, young entrepreneurs have started up the environmentally-friendly "boda boda" bicycle business that ferries clients from main roads to villages off the beaten track.
Eric Maino

Obstacles, it seems, generate power. In the rural areas of Kenya, some opportunistic youth have capitalised on poor road networks and lack of vehicles to earn their daily bread. They now offer transportation on a "boda boda," a bicycle with a brightly coloured cushioned pad attached behind the seat, used for carrying one passenger at a time. Bicycle shuttle services are, in some areas, the only way of getting around.

Boda bodas have been around since 1990, when young people in Busia, a town that shares a border with Uganda, used bicycles to smuggle goods across the border. In fact, "boda boda" comes from the English word "border."

These youth quickly realised that the same bicycles they used to carry goods from Kenya to Uganda and back could also ferry people in the transportation-poor villages of Western Kenya. The mania spread its wings to neglected rural villages in the west and beyond.

With an estimated 90 percent of Kenyan roads not being paved, according to the 2001 budget report on rural development, and many roads being impassable by vehicles, the boda boda has become a versatile, quick, and reliable form of transportation.

Peter Kiilu, Commissioner for Western Province, estimates that there are approximately 200,000 people who operate boda bodas throughout the province. The boda boda industry, he says, has created employment for many youth, cutting down on social problems such as crime, promiscuity, and drug abuse.

It has also become a source of income for mostly male secondary school graduates who would otherwise be unemployed. In Bungoma District, a boda boda operator can make approximately US$2.60 (Sh200) a day after deducting the cost of lunch and repairs to the bicycle.

This wage is higher than the average earnings of most people in the area. More than 50 per cent of Kenyans earn and live on less than one dollar a day, according to the government's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper 2001. This wage, however, is generally not high enough to feed, clothe, or take care of the medical expenses of a family.

"There being scant employment opportunities, and I have to live or die, I opted for boda-boda", says 26-year-old Peter Wanyonyi, who plies from tarmac to village and back in Bungoma district. "When I finished secondary school six years ago, employment prospects were low… Doom lingered over my future and I didn't know where to fend for survival," he says.

Wanyonyi says that it is by the "grace of God" that his father gave him his bicycle and encouraged him to operate a bicycle taxi. "I'm now comfortable and can feed my two children and educate them," he says.

Twenty-year-old Henry Tibuka in Kakamega District had just finished school last year. "I knew I must look for money, but since most of my age-mates operate [bicycle] taxis, I joined them, and the struggle continues," he says. Tibuka charges approximately US$0.06 (Sh5) for every kilometre travelled. An operator cycles 50 kilometres a day on average, he says.

"When somebody has paid, you're forced to ride even in hilly places," says the sweaty Tibuka. "It is also hard riding in these ragged roads. Riding in the meandering paths is as perilous as going through a jungle; you have to be smart lest you fall down with your customer." To make the ride easier, most operators have fixed a small transistor radio onto their bicycles, cushioned the carrier, and put an alarm bell on their bars.

Business booms at the end of the year, when most people who live in cities and towns return to their rural homes for Christmas holidays.

"These boys are a blessing," says Mary Mogambi, a primary school teacher in Nyanza Province. "Formerly, we had to trek for long distances, getting late and missing important meetings. Now, it's quick service."

Boda-bodas are now a household name. They have become school vans for transporting pupils and teachers, busses for staff, and have even carried government ministers and other prominent people. It has also become the village ambulance. Says boda boda operator Wanyonyi: "When a villager gets sick, it's our obligation to wake up even late at night and find our way to the hospital, which is always located far from the village."

Boda boda drivers have the reputation of being honest and trustworthy. Some village traders entrust them with as much as US$13 (Sh1,000) - a large amount of money for the average person in this part of Kenya - to purchase goods from wholesalers in urban areas. "And they deliver," says Joel Sifuna, a businessman from Busia. "Otherwise, if it were somebody else, our money would be disappearing into the air." Sifuna has used boda-boda for over five years.

To be a boda boda operator, one must own a bicycle, which costs approximately US$39 to $52 (Sh3000 - 4000). Every village contains a boda boda association, the membership fee of which is US$6.50 (Sh500), with a daily contribution of US$0.25 (Sh20).

"This money is used for emergencies [such as] attending to a sick operator or paying for damages should our operator plunge to an accident with a client," explains boda boda operator Wanyonyi, who is also the general secretary of the Lumboka Boda Boda Welfare Association based in Bungoma district.

"When one registers," he adds, "he gets an identification card, a PIN number, and a small flag with his bicycle number. This is in a bid to put off hooligans and quacks that had infiltrated our business."

Quality control is key, says Wanyonyi. "Sometimes, an operator might be disobedient to a client. Should our offices learn of that, we trace the number and discipline the person strongly. The community has learned to demand identification before they are carried. These regulations have earned us good public relations in the community.

"Before doing that, conmen used to steal from commuters and rape female clients," he says. "It extremely soiled our reputation and we risked being banned from operation. But, we are recovering, a thing that heralds better days for us."

In the June budget he delivered in 2001, then Minister of Finance Chris Okemo exempted the purchase of bicycles from being taxed, a gesture that received an overwhelmingly positive reception by boda boda operators. Okemo, noted in his speech that bicycles are essential in rural areas, and should be made accessible to the average person.

"It is God send," commented Peter Onyango, who operates a bicycle taxi in Nyanza province. "Mr. Okemo has foresight; he himself is an ardent user of boda-boda whenever he goes to his rural area in Busia and he knows how essential our services are."

People were sceptical when boda bodas were first introduced, but now bicycle taxis are a part of life, says Enock Wafula, who rides in Lugari district. "As long as the government neglects the rural lad, taxis will reign," he says, adding that, "like the matatu [minibus] industry, we have no doubt the [bicycle] taxi will bloom to a giant indigenous industry, employing millions."

Dr. Alfred Baraza, a private clinical practitioner at Western Maternity and Nursing Home, Matunda, Bungoma, says that operating a boda boda has its medical drawbacks. "I know the boys get money, but the medical complications associated with such strenuous tasks are so wanting.

"In the first place, these people don't get a proper diet, thus their health deteriorates acutely," he says. "Due to the dusty roads and cold weather, they contact pneumonia, bronchitis, and acute flu. Some develop kidney stones as a result of the body emptying a lot of acid."

Baraza has personally diagnosed these diseases in many taxi operators. He advises them to get warm clothing during cool weather and wear masks when the road is dusty. "Also, a proper diet is quite essential and there is no compromise for that," he adds.

Prof. Job Shitanda, a lecturer in the Department of Economics at Moi University, congratulates the boda boda drivers for their ingenuity and says he thinks the boda boda industry will become "giant." "In business, we need the creativity, dexterity, and diligence clearly demonstrated by our boys. They now earn through their innovative ways. But the government should come in and provide loans, workshops, and protection so that they can expand the trade."

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