Kenya’s removal of import duty on motorcycles over a decade ago led to the instant creation of tens of thousands of new jobs in the transport sector, notably in the growth of motorcycle taxis, better known as boda bodas. However, the sector is also in the news for all the wrong reasons – fuelling crime, mob assaults on other road users, disregard for traffic rules. A viral video in which a mob of riders sexually assaulted a female motorist recently amplified the rot in the sector. Policy analyst Douglas Lucas Kivoi unpacks what went wrong and what should be done to make the boda boda sector safer for everyone.
What’s the history of boda bodas in Kenya?
The government of Kenya zero rated import duty on motorcycles of up to 250cc in 2008. This made them affordable to average Kenyan homes, previously a pipe dream. It meant that most rural and urban families could afford to own one. They also provided vulnerable constituencies in communities an avenue to lift themselves out of poverty.
Boda bodas filled a gap in the absence of reliable, efficient transport across Kenya, in both urban and rural areas. It also addresses the problem of a poor transport infrastructure, especially a pathetic road network. In some areas the road network is so bad that only motorcycles can access communities.
In its 2018 report the National Transport and Safety Authority documented nearly 1.4 million registered motorcycles in Kenya. But, in fact, an accurate number of motorcycles operating as boda bodas remains a mystery. This lacuna pertaining to registration, regulation, monitoring and the use of motorcycle boda bodas as public service vehicle transport is a cause for concern.
What social and economic role do they play?
When the government liberalised the motorcycle industry, many unemployed young men took advantage of poor road networks and the chaotic transport sector to eke out a living by transporting people and goods on motorbikes. This gave rise to gangs of young men who have organised themselves into informal associations with a clear chain of command.
The sector’s economic contribution is immense: it is estimated that it provides more than one million direct jobs for riders who earn roughly about less than US$10 a day.
Treasury is estimated to be collecting roughly Ksh60 billion (about US$525 million) yearly in fuel taxes from boda bodas. Each consumes an average of Ksh300 (about US$3) worth of petrol each in a day. It is, simply, a sector that cannot be wished away.
What are its downsides?
The boda boda transport business was in the limelight in early March 2022 for all the wrong reasons. A group of riders sexually assaulted a female motorist in Nairobi. President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a crackdown on the entire sector in a bid to instil sanity.
The sector has operated without decorum and decency for a long time. Drivers are not trained in road safety – most don’t even have a driving licence and they are a law unto themselves. This has bred criminal gangs where impunity reigns supreme, especially on the road. The chaotic situation has put drivers in danger: some have lost their lives along with their innocent passengers. Thousands have been maimed. In 2019, for instance, 1,421 boda boda riders and pillion passengers died, compared to 1,049 motor vehicle drivers and passengers.
Some boda boda riders have been accused of actively participating in or abetting crime. Some have been accused of helping remove or conceal the bodies of those killed by criminals.
What’s to be done?
The entire transport sector in Kenya is extremely chaotic and requires serious policy and legal interventions to tame cartels and rogue operators.
The lack of a comprehensive framework to regulate the public transport sector has been the country’s main undoing. Kenya’s road network lacks lanes to protect bikers and motorcycles. Urban roads need to be redesigned to accommodate motorcyclists and cyclists.
Because impunity is deeply entrenched in Kenya’s transport sector, it is prudent that the government adopts both short and continuous long term measures to address the menace in the boda boda sector.
In the short term, one consideration should be to get all boda boda drivers to attend driving schools. This may be a tall order. But the national government, National Transport Safety Authority and county governments should organise continuous training for the drivers, focusing particularly on road safety and decorum.
The government should also consider establishing a database of all boda boda operators in Kenya through mandatory registration, refresher training and testing. This should be followed up with a robust enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance.
But it’s crucial that interventions don’t affect the livelihoods of communities. All 47 county governments ought to develop humane by-laws and policies to sustainably govern and regulate the boda boda sector’s operations. This, instead of adopting a retributive penal approach of arrests, prosecution and enforcing bans on boda boda operations.
Counties could, for instance, designate zones of operation for boda bodas.
Whatever approach is taken, it must be done in consultation with all stakeholders.
Douglas Lucas Kivoi, Principal Policy Analyst, Governance Department, The Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)