East Africa's Boda boda boom that became major public health concern

Boda bodas on Jinja Road in Kampala. A new report on improving road safety in Uganda has revealed that at least 89 percent of boda boda riders in Kampala City do not have driving permits. PHOTO / DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • The two-wheelers became popular as they filled a crucial gap at a time when there was limited infrastructure in many parts of the region, offering fast, flexible and reliable services to passengers in both urban and rural areas.

About two decades ago, East African countries woke up to a new mode of transport – the boda boda.

The two-wheelers became popular as they filled a crucial gap at a time when there was limited infrastructure in many parts of the region, offering fast, flexible and reliable services to passengers in both urban and rural areas.

Doubtless, motorbikes are now a major part of East Africa’s micro-economy and source of livelihood for many, particularly thousands of unemployed youths.

Kenya has witnessed a steady growth in the number of motorcycles in the last 15 years after the government zero-rated import duty on motorcycles below 250cc in 2008, making them affordable to many people. The number of newly registered motorcycles thus went up by 55.1 per cent, from 16,293 units in 2007 to 51,412 units in 2008. By 2009, the country had 91,151 units, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

The National Transport and Safety Authority indicates that there were 1.39 million registered boda bodas in Kenya as at February, 2018. A similar spike of registration of bikes has been reported across East Africa.

But despite the crucial role they play in the mobility of persons and goods, motorbikes are a double-edged sword. With their rising popularity, the sector has been associated with road accidents and crimes such as theft and drug trafficking, thanks to riders operating in an environment of minimal regulations and control.

Many young people have ventured into the boda boda business without the requisite basic training, what has become one of the main causes of road accidents.

In the 15 years, thousands of riders, their passengers and pedestrians have been killed and injured in boda boda crashes, raising a great public health concern.

In this series of Healthy Nation special reportage, our journalists go behind the scenes to reveal the status of the boda boda transport sector in East Africa, reporting on the growing influence of the two-wheelers in the region, the gaps in regulation, the enduring menace of the motorcycle taxis and the toll of boda boda accidents on the region’s health sector.

Reporting from Kenya, Pauline Ongaji looks at the history of the boda bodas, what led to their influx and how they came in to fill the gap in reliable and efficient transport. She also delves into the dangers of how lack of a comprehensive framework to regulate the sector has made it a breeding ground for criminal gangs and at the same time endangered road users. Over the last 10 years, boda boda accidents have surged, with injuries and hospitalisations having a colossal impact on the country’s health system.

Mary Wangari visited Zanzibar Island, where she traced the history of boda boda sector, the tempestuous hurdles it has weathered so far and the ongoing efforts by the Zanzibari government to regulate it. Despite these efforts, boda boda-related accidents continue to leave families in anguish and financial misery at the same time weighing heavily on the Island’s health systems.

In Burundi, James Kahongeh focused on last month’s ban of motorbikes from Bujumbura’s city centre after what the authorities described as a frightful rise in the number of crashes that maim or claim lives of thousands every year.

Now the bikes have been limited to few pockets of Bujumbura neighbourhoods, with a heavy police deployment on major streets of the capital to enforce the ban. In this city of 1.2 million inhabitants, like many others across the region, boda boda riders operated like a criminal enterprise with little regard for traffic rules. Across the city, the economic effects of the ban are palpable and disruption to public mobility is evident. But the government has stuck to its guns.

Reporting from Tanzania, Elizabeth Merab looked at how the government through the city of Dar-es-Saalam is trying to cut down costs of treating boda boda accident victims. This has been done through partnership with community policing and driving schools that conduct civic education, sensitisation and implementation of safe boda boda use with the aim of reducing the burden of accident on the health sector.

In Uganda, Jurgen Nambeka digs deep inside the streets of Kampala, Gulu and Lira, where rowdy riders endanger the lives of pillion passengers and those of other motorists through reckless riding. Only a few wear helmets and reflector jackets while most of them ride unroadworthy bikes, often without a licence.

Interestingly, even a safety solution that sought to end the menace has failed, with many riders unsubscribing from the platform. They say SafeBoda eats into their profits and are now back to the legacy lawlessness where they appear to find pleasure in flouting traffic rules.

Rwanda, the country of a thousand hills, seems to be ticking all the right boxes in the regulation of motorbike taxis, as Hellen Shikanda found out. Rwanda is the only country in the region where riders religiously observe the requirement to wear a helmet and to carry one passenger at a time. To curb accident frequencies due to speeding, Rwanda has installed automated speed cameras and red light cameras that capture traffic offenders. The regulations are known by heart and you will rarely find anyone flouting them, whether in the city or deep in the villages.