Boda-boda

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Boda-boda
Informal practice commonly found in Uganda
Uganda map.png
Map of Uganda, where Boda-boda commonly takes place.
Uganda flag.png
Flag of Uganda.
Entry written by Tom Goodfellow.
Tom Goodfellow is affiliated to Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield.

Original Text: Prof. Tom Goodfellow

Boda-boda is the local term for bicycle and motorcycle-taxis in Uganda, although the term is also used in some neighbouring countries such as Kenya. While informal motorcycle-taxi transport is prevalent across many parts of the world, the sector has particular economic and political significance in Uganda, where it has come symbolically to represent the ‘ungovernability’ of the country’s informal economy. Involving a sizeable proportion of the country’s male youth, this thriving informal occupation is seen to fill critical gaps both in transport provision and employment, while at the same time posing threats to security and undermining the authority of local government agencies that have long sought to control and regulate its growth.

Photograph representing a pair of boda-bodas in Kampala, Uganda.

The use of bicycles as a form of transport service for both goods and people dates back to the 1960s and 1970s in this region of Africa, but it was in the 1990s that the term boda-boda came into common currency. The term derives from the English word ‘border’, emerging in the context of transport across the Kenya-Uganda border in the town of Busia. Here there was a gap of over half a mile between the border gates on either side, and bicycle drivers offering their services would call out ‘boda-boda’ (border to border) to passengers who might want to be transported across the divide.

The use of these services quickly spread to other parts of Kenya and Uganda, and with the increase in cheap, low-powered Japanese motorcycles flooding Uganda from the 1990s, motorcycle-taxis increasingly came to dominate over push-bikes in many parts of the country – especially in the major cities (Bryceson et al 2003)[1]. The popularity of this transport option can be linked to the lack of good road infrastructure, collapse of the national public transport system from the 1980s onwards, deregulation of transport services, increased congestion in cities which motorcycles can navigate much more easily than larger vehicles, and sustained economic growth. Indeed, the poor can rarely afford to use boda-bodas as they can cost as much as seven times more per kilometre to use than buses or minibuses. They do, however, benefit greatly from boda-bodas as a source of income. One 2003 study found that some 1.7 million people, or 7 per cent of the population, received part or all of their livelihood from the industry (Howe 2003)[2].

In the Ugandan capital Kampala, boda-bodas grew at an exponential rate during the 2000s, as the city mushroomed in size and the large number of matatu minibus-taxis contributed to traffic gridlock. It has been claimed that nowhere in the world are motorcycles more popular as a public transport option, and an estimated 800,000 boda-boda trips are taken every day (Kidimu 2015)[3]. Various studies indicate a rise from around 4,000 boda boda drivers in Kampala in 2003 to 16,000 in 2007, 40,000 in 2010 and as many as 100,000 in 2014 (Bryceson et al 2003[4]; Goodfellow 2015[5]). This rapid growth was partly a consequence of government policy, with the introduction of credit schemes to allow drivers to purchase their own motorbikes. For the most part, however, drivers either rent their bikes or are only able to purchase them gradually through a hire-purchase system. This provides a very lucrative opportunity for investors, who frequently make profits of at least 60 per cent per motorcycle when they sell to a driver incrementally. Boda-bodas therefore quickly became ‘big business’; those with means would often purchase tens or even hundreds to re-sell in this way.

Close-up photograph showing, in more detail, a group of boda-bodas in Kampala, Uganda.

Despite initial government efforts to stimulate the sector, the Kampala City Council soon began to fear that the sector was running out of control, dominating the roads without any regulatory oversight, generating huge numbers of traffic accidents. Around 60 per cent of the people admitted to the city’s main hospital with fractures are there due to boda-boda related accidents. In 2014 alone, 3,124 people died on the spot as a result of boda-boda accidents, while 12,754 were seriously injured (Kidimu 2015)[6]. It is therefore little surprise that boda-boda drivers are often considered to be an out-of-control group of ‘hooligans’. Very few are registered as operators with the Transport Licensing Board, and many do not even possess driving licenses. They also pay nothing by way of tax. These problems led to repeated efforts in the 2000s to introduce regulations in the form of mandatory driving licences, Passenger Service Vehicle permits, helmets (for driver and passenger) and third party insurance, as well as controls on numbers. There were also repeated attempts to impose a basic local tax on drivers.

These efforts overwhelmingly failed, often due to interventions by central government politicians who would make announcements saying that these new regulatory systems were not compulsory or that the tax was inappropriate (Goodfellow and Titeca 2012[7]; Goodfellow 2015[8]). These deliberately undermined the city government’s efforts and made it extremely difficult for them to enforce their regulations. It is this highly politicised nature of the sector, and the way in which it became a focus of conflict between the central government under the National Resistance Movement and the opposition-controlled Kampala City Council, that gives boda-bodas their particular socio-political significance. The drivers in the sector were effectively cultivated as a client group by the central government, both through micro-credit schemes and through ‘protecting’ them from the city government’s efforts to regulate. This played a key role in the ruling party’s strategy for building political support in an opposition-controlled city.

These political dynamics further fuelled the growth of the sector, because the continued absence of controls or taxes made it ever more appealing as a livelihood option, particularly given the lack of alternative employment opportunities. In 2011, the central government abolished the City Council and replaced it with a new Kampala Capital City Authority that pledged to ‘clean up’ the city. Yet even though the central government was now officially committed to greater regulation, the vested interests in the sector were so powerful that it was difficult to bring about any effective change. The police regularly round up drivers who lack the relevant paperwork and confiscate their motorcycles, but this rarely achieves much beyond creating opportunities for bribes and recirculating some of the resources in the sector among the police.

Photograph depicting a group of boda-boda in Uganda.

The uncontrolled growth of this sector and the failure to formalise, regulate or tax it over successive decades contrasts strongly with neighbouring Rwanda, where the same phenomenon (known as taxi-moto) was brought under tight regulatory control from 2007, with strict limits on numbers and the introduction of numerous taxes (Rollason 2013[9]; Goodfellow 2015[10]). In Uganda, boda-boda drivers are now such a substantial component of the urban population that they have come to represent a broader socioeconomic category, sometimes referred to as the ‘boda-boda class’, which implies an uneducated, roguish urban underclass with particular political leanings. In reality, this is not always an accurate characterisation, as many boda-boda drivers are actually highly educated – some even have university degrees – and engage in this practice simply because it is the best option available to them.

Even though the state has achieved little by way of control of the sector, various entrepreneurs have entered to try and capitalise on and improve the operation of boda-boda activities in recent years. One initiative is Safe Boda, a business start-up along the lines of the global taxi phenomenon Über, which was set up by a former Deloitte employee and – interestingly – a former advisor to the government of Rwanda, in conjunction with local drivers. Through a mobile phone application, users of this service can guarantee to be linked to trained, registered boda-boda drivers. Though a promising initiative, drivers registered to this service numbered only 50 in 2015 – a small drop in the ocean of boda-boda operators. Another initiative is Tugende, a company started up by an American entrepreneur that aims to provide hire-purchase motorcyles to large numbers of boda-boda drivers on more favourable terms than were otherwise available to them.

Notes

  1. Bryceson, D. F., Mbara, T. C., & Maunder, D. 2003. ‘Livelihoods, daily mobility and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa’. Transport Reviews, 23(2), 177-196.
  2. Howe, J. 2003. 'Filling the middle': Uganda's appropriate transport services, Transport Reviews, 23(2), 161-176.
  3. Kidimu, G. 2015. Deadly rides in Kampala, The New Vision, 31 October. Available at: http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/675112-deadly-rides-in-kampala.html. Accessed 24 November 2015.
  4. Bryceson, D. F., Mbara, T. C., & Maunder, D. 2003. ‘Livelihoods, daily mobility and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa’. Transport Reviews, 23(2), 177-196.
  5. Goodfellow, T. 2015. Taming the ‘Rogue’ Sector: Studying State Effectiveness in Africa through Informal Transport Politics, Comparative Politics 47(2): 127-147.
  6. Kidimu, G. 2015. Deadly rides in Kampala, The New Vision, 31 October. Available at: http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/675112-deadly-rides-in-kampala.html. Accessed 24 November 2015.
  7. Goodfellow, T. and K. Titeca. 2012. Presidential Intervention and the Changing ‘Politics of Survival’ in Kampala’s Informal Economy, Cities, 29: 264-270.
  8. Goodfellow, T. 2015. Taming the ‘Rogue’ Sector: Studying State Effectiveness in Africa through Informal Transport Politics, Comparative Politics 47(2): 127-147. Howe, J., & Davis, A. 2002. Boda Boda – Uganda’s rural and urban low-capacity transport services, in Godard, X. and Fatonzoun, I. (eds.), Urban Mobility for All, Lisse: AA Balkema Publishers: 235-240.
  9. Rollason, W. 2013. Performance, poverty and urban development: Kigali’s motari and the spectacle city, in Afrika Focus 26.2: 9-29.
  10. Goodfellow, T. 2015. Taming the ‘Rogue’ Sector: Studying State Effectiveness in Africa through Informal Transport Politics, Comparative Politics 47(2): 127-147. Howe, J., & Davis, A. 2002. Boda Boda – Uganda’s rural and urban low-capacity transport services, in Godard, X. and Fatonzoun, I. (eds.), Urban Mobility for All, Lisse: AA Balkema Publishers: 235-240.