A strange thing happened: Boda bodas have now become the game changer

Wednesday November 12 2014

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The boda bodas (motorcycle ‘taxis’) have won the battle in Kampala.
And, no, it is not because President Yoweri Museveni is protecting them for cynical electoral reasons – or to preserve the spying/intelligence infrastructure some of them constituted.
The boda bodas have been handed victory by their enemies - the motorists who considered them a menace. Boda bodas have now become the only way Kampala can work, because the city’s maddening traffic jam has made it a hopelessly inefficient city.
Now every car owner has a story to tell about a meeting he/she couldn’t get to because of traffic jams, and some tell tales of flights that they would have missed, but were saved by boda boda.
So we have a situation where car owners cannot do their business without boda bodas. Many years ago, boda bodas carried passengers only. Now their market has diversified.

Kampala is getting to be at a point where Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos was not too long ago: Because of traffic jams, delivery of services for everything from groceries to banking and payment services, are now being done by boda boda.
Thus while the boda boda industry has diversified and become more sophisticated, the car industry has remained stagnant.
In the process, the traffic jams and boda bodas have driven innovation, giving rise to the online store. Because the traffic jam mess is not about to be fixed in Kampala, if you are a venture capitalist, put your money in e-commerce. It can only grow.
But even that is not the most dramatic change boda bodas have wrought. The most enduring one is how they have affected settlement patterns, and in turn complicated the task of decongesting Kampala.
The way residential Kampala, and indeed other cities, was built was that homes were established in places that residents could reach. So they were done near a railway, a road along which cars could drive, and near or a walkable distance from a matatu or bus stop.
Boda bodas changed that, because all they needed is a path. So in the outskirts of Kampala, people started building homes for rental in places without roads but that had paths along which bodas could ride.

There was something else beside the path, because such homes were still off the main flow of bodas. There had to be a “call” system for bodas, and that was the cellphone.
The traffic jams and cellphones, plus the lousy public transportation, entrenched the bodas.
Ultimately, the construction of boda-access homes, have used up all the spaces where new roads would have been built. Kampala, therefore, has reached its limit, and can no longer breathe.
I was discussing with some friends where one could build a world-class museum in Kampala. In the end, we agreed that it was not possible.
By contrast even the oldest and most prestigious upmarket suburb in East Africa, Muthaiga in Nairobi, still has a few vacant plots! Kitsuru, in location terms the equivalent of Naguru, has expansion room in more than 30 per cent of its area…yet Nairobi is an older, bigger, and richer city than Kampala.
To be fair, the fact that Kampala is hilly, and the land ownership is very different, are historical and bigger limitations that one cannot blame on the city. That said, the future of Kampala is probably over.

Let’s illustrate. A friend in South Africa tells me a story of a relative who flew from Johannesburg to Entebbe. That’s a long journey. However, she had a bad traffic day and it look her longer to get from Entebbe to her home in Luzira, than her journey from South Africa to Uganda.
Secondly, Kampala to Lugazi is now a traffic crawl. I arranged with a technician to fly in from Nairobi, to Kisumu, get a car, and drive to Busia and cross the border, and then on Tororo where we would meet up.
He set out from Nairobi at about the same time as I did from Kampala. I was sure he would find me in Tororo.
When I was clearing Mabiri, he called. “Where are you?” he asked. It took me nearly another two hours to link up with him.
Gridlock could leave cities like Kampala choking on their vomit if they don’t drastically overhaul the way they work.
Still, from this, we could see a reconfiguration of the regional economies as growth and development is pushed to places where there is room to create new things.

In future, eastern Uganda and the wider western and upper Rift Valley will become a sub-economy; as will northern Tanzania, northern Rwanda and the southwest Uganda and so forth.
That, though, won’t happen tomorrow. For now, reflect on what boda boda have done…and no one wrote the script, or could even have dreamed of it 10 years ago!

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3