Kampala's Boda Bodas: Profit overrides competition

What you need to know:

The boda boda business is one where a person is almost certainly assured of making some money, enough to feed their family and because the traffic situation is not getting any better, more passengers are opting to use these bikes, despite their nickname of death-on-wheels.

Every morning, Ivan Bufulwa wakes up before dawn, takes tea with his wife, and gets his children out of bed. By 8am, he has taken his four-year-old to school and is hard at work. Bufulwa spends the day on the back of a motorcycle, joining tens of thousands of boda boda riders who have become a ubiquitous part of the Kampala workforce.

Visible on nearly every street corner in central Kampala, the number of boda boda riders has skyrocketed in recent years, making it one of the fastest growing businesses in Uganda. With an annual population growth rate of four per cent, Kampala is the fourth fastest growing city in Africa, according to the City Mayors Foundation, but road construction and maintenance have not kept pace with this rapid development. As a result, traffic is worse than ever and residents are increasingly taking bodas to beat the jam.

Number of boda bodas on the road
There is no way to accurately count the number of boda boda riders in Kampala and quoted estimates from authorities range between 50,000 and 800,000. Richard Kibikwamu, the general secretary of the Kampala Central Division, Boda Boda 2010 Association, said there are approximately 200,000 boda riders and 5,000 stages in Kampala.

With the unemployment rate in Kampala hovering around 11 per cent, according to the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics, and youth unemployment even higher, hundreds of riders enter the boda boda business every day. This influx has caused some Kampala residents to wonder if the boda market has reached a saturation point in which the supply of riders outpaces passenger demand. Despite the swelling number of riders, most people agree that the boda boda business is still fairly profitable.

According to Rapa Thomson Ricky, the chairman of a stage in Kololo, “There are too many riders, but there are also too many passengers. Customers are everywhere and every boda rider I know makes money.”
Kibikwamu agrees with that assessment. “There are not many [riders] who can’t make money. As long as you have a stage and a nice bike in good condition, it’s easy for you to make money.”

The reaping
Most riders in Kampala can take home at least Shs15,000 per day and Shs450,000 per month in profit, while ambitious, hard-working, and lucky drivers can earn even more. At the very minimum, Kibikwamu says, riders in the Boda Boda 2010 Association earn at least Shs300,000 per month. “It depends on how lucky you are,” Thomson said. “It’s like hunting. The boda boda business is all about hunting. Lucky riders that find passengers who pay more than they should can earn up to Shs100,000 per day.”

On average, drivers spend at least Shs8,000 per day on fuel and Shs50,000 per month maintaining their bikes. Around half of the riders in Kampala rent their motorcycles at a rate of Shs60,000 per week, but even those who rent their bikes are able to earn a profit. Because the wages in the boda boda business greatly exceed those for other low-skilled jobs in sectors like construction, security, and retail, many young men flock to the boda industry from other professions.

Bufulwa used to work as a newspaper vendor, where he had to sell over 100 newspapers to make a third of his daily wage as a boda rider. Most days, he was only able to sell around 30 copies, which earned him Shs4,000, barely enough to buy a meal.

Medie Sebi Ssuna was a motorcycle mechanic who used to earn around Shs70,000 per week, but in 2001, he discovered that he could make more money by riding the bodas he used to repair. Now, he has been in the industry for more than a decade and he is the Managing Director of Tugende LLC, a business that gives loans to drivers so that they can own their own motorcycles.

According to Ssuna, the industry has changed a lot in the past decade and greater competition has affected drivers’ profits. “You cannot make as much money as we used to make in 2001,” he says, “But at least no one goes home without anything. Although the riders are many, the passengers are more because of the traffic jam. It is very possible to support a family by being a boda boda rider.”

As the supply of drivers reaches a critical mass in central Kampala, Michael Wilkerson, the Co-Founder and CEO of Tugende LLC, said many drivers are spreading to the suburbs and other Ugandan cities, where boda bodas were a rare sight several years before. Now, the industry that started in Kampala in 1994, has expanded across the country.

How they join the business
New riders flock to the industry because it is profitable and relatively easy to enter. To operate legally, boda riders need a driver’s permit, third-party insurance, a Passenger Service Vehicle license (PSV), and a stage so that they can register with the Boda Boda 2010 Association. But in reality, many drivers enter the market without the required documentation and Thomson estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of drivers in Kampala are not registered with a stage. “You don’t necessarily need anything [to get started] because there is no enforcement,” Wilkerson says. “A lot of guys will just show up one day and start riding a motorcycle. I think that’s the cause of a lot of dangerous driving and bad behaviour.”

Safety, lack of regulation, and corruption by traffic police are some of the biggest concerns for boda boda riders. Accidents are the biggest obstacle,” Kibikwamu says. “There are so many.”
“Bad things can happen at night,” Thomson says. He is talking from experience. In September, he was attacked after dropping off a passenger on the outskirts of Kampala. Around midnight, two assailants threw a log in front of his boda, causing him to crash, and they assaulted him and stole his money.

For drivers and passengers alike, taking boda bodas at night can be risky, but there are few alternatives after taxis and buses stop running around midnight. Even during the day, riding on a boda is dangerous, especially when bodas weave through heavy traffic and drive on the wrong side of the road.

Since 2002, the population of Kampala has grown from 1.2 million to 1.7 million residents, according to the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics, but there have only been a handful of new roads constructed in the past decade

“When there isn’t heavy traffic jam, the fact that cars have to come to a near complete stop to navigate a disastrous pothole on a main road means that there is a ripple effect that slows down everything and creates a traffic jam when it’s not congested. “The motorcycle can just go around and pass cars,” Wilkerson says. “If motorcycles are ever going to be a less significant part of transportation in Kampala, there will have to be better and bigger roads and a credible alternative for public transportation.”

As passengers are forced to use boda bodas because of a lack of quick and convenient alternatives, many drivers also join the industry because they do not have other options.

Many riders are able to save money and exit the precarious boda industry, but for others, the process is slow. “Riding a motorcycle can be fun for a while, but no one really wants to be doing this for years and years and years,” Wilkerson explained. “All of our drivers have something they’re aiming for as a next step.”

For tens of thousands, the boda boda business could be a ticket to achieving their dreams, but it is also a difficult and dangerous occupation.