Boda bodas will inherit the post-Covid kingdom

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

Boda bodas are a menace in Kampala, but they still represent an insurgent and disruptive phenomenon that came from the margins...

A few days ago a bunch of Ugandans and their friends gathered somewhere in East Africa, to talk about their country, work, and the world.  Invariably, these fellows who venture out tend to be very clever, a little crazy – and therefore a joy to listen to. At one point the conversation turned to boda boda, and how they are the thing that, next to the mobile phone, have radically changed our societies.

 One of them who works with a multinational explained how a distribution system they established using boda bodas at the height of the pandemic saved their business from collapsing in Uganda.

 They were not alone. Cooped up at home and hiding from the pandemic, the boda boda was the saviour, delivering groceries, take outs, and medicines.

 A friend, who recently worked with an oil multinational in East Africa told of a petrol station they built in a far-flung area, and how after it was completed, everyone thought it was a dumb idea. In the first few months, the pessimists seemed to be right. The station was selling a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of litres of petrol the other station sold.  Slowly the numbers started going up. In December, something that seemed impossible happened – this rural petrol station sold the most fuel of any, including the ones in the city. What happened? Boda boda!

 Something else seemed to be odd in the data from that and other up-country pump stations. There had been a sharp rise in the consumption of enhanced/high-performance fuels (like V-Power, BP Ultimate, Total Excellium). These are usually consumed by fellows in the cities and big towns with their expensive cars, not folks in the village. They went on the ground to solve the mystery and found that again it was the boda boda fellows.

 Though it’s more expensive, the boda boda riders had discovered that high-performance fuels help them carry heavy loads over steep hills, more than regular fuels. So, where they could not carry a sack of potatoes over, with high-performance fuels, they could carry two or even three. The higher cost of fuel thus became nothing.  He paused and said: “These fellows are really smart. We never foresaw that. We don’t know how they figured it, but the lesson is to never underestimate them”.

 Boda bodas are a menace in Kampala, but they still represent an insurgent and disruptive phenomenon that came from the margins, born as bicycle transport for underserved cross-border communities at the Uganda-Kenya borderlands in the late 1980s and 1990s, and a workhorse for smugglers.    Now, as the latest wave of Covid ebbs, and we start the long road to recovery, the foresighted are saying the insights gained from lockdown, particularly the centrality that boda boda assumed, need to be worked in urban renewal and future cities. Reorganising streets to turn them into boda boda-only lanes, as some cities in Asia have done for scooters and motorcycles, jumps out immediately.

 Motorcycle specifications, including nationally-funded provisioning of boda-friendly hazmat suits, would also seem like a wise move, given that another Covid wave or other pandemic is almost definitely likely to come our way.

 But the ability of boda bodas to propel high volumes of fuel consumption and sustain economic ecosystems of fuel consumption also points to how wealth (little though it may be) has been redistributed away from the cities, to the small businesses, small but creative farmers, and enterprising women driven into the market by the changing structure of families.

 It is a trend that has been underway for decades but seems to now be reaching maturity. My friend Jack Wavamunno told me a story about how a middle aged man in a stained kanzu and hat, and a large mukeka (palm) came to the showroom of Spear Motors when he was still working there years back.

 A genial, always up for a fun chat, and unspoilt by privilege, Jack met the gentleman warmly and asked how he might help. He said he wanted to check out the latest Mercedes Benzes.  Most people would have given the man a bottle of water, and showed him to the next matatu stop. Not Jack. He patiently took him around the showroom, and he finally saw a Benz he liked. He sat in, and Jack immediately saw the fellow had owned and driven a car. The gentleman asked how much the Benz cost. It was several million, Jack told him. He handed Jack his palm bag, and told him, “the money is there, count it”. It turned out he was a coffee farmer from Masaka.  The stains on his hat and kanzu, were the badges of honour of honest long labour in the sun. There were few of his likes years ago, but today they are many. And many arrive on a boda boda.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3