Driving in most rural towns in Kenya today requires more than just a certified driving license.
Drivers have the onerous task of dodging the myriad boda bodas that crowd our roads besides wriggling through the mass of human traffic who avoid the pedestrian pathways and resort to the thorough fares in competition with cars, boda bodas, matatus, buses and trucks. Indeed it is a clear manifestation of the truly peculiar habits of Kenyans that once irked a leading private sector leader.
Where and how did the boda boda come about? The name originated from the need to transport people across the no man's land "between the border posts without the paperwork involved with using motor vehicles crossing the international border.
This started in the southern border crossing the town of Busia (Kenya / Uganda) where there is over half a mile between the gates and quickly spread to the northern border town of Malaba (Kenya). The bicycle owners would shout out boda-boda (border-to-border) to potential customers.
The overwhelming victory of the NARC coalition in 2002 and the 'feel good' factor that came with it saw an economic resurgence raising GDP growth to a high of 7% in 2005.
On the diplomatic front a clear shift in foreign policy led to the introduction of motorized boda bodas from newly friendly nations in the East mainly India and China giving rise to the booming business that is witnessed today.
Why then is the boda boda debate important? Firstly, the great convenience that it grants to travelers often has to be weighed against the equally significant safety concerns attendant.
In Nyanza region alone over 90,000 of the 200,000 boda boda operators utilize motorized bikes. In this and other areas, whole sections of local district and provincial hospitals are designated to boda boda accident victims culminating in a huge strain to the already strained medical facilities in the country.
Other concerns about boda bodas include the reduction in air quality due to incomplete combustion, abusive use, lack of adherence to safety requirements such as wearing protective gear such as helmets and reflector jackets further complicating an already precarious situation.
As we approach the March 4 elections, an opportunity presents itself to challenge the aspirants especially at gubernatorial level on their strategic plans especially regarding public transport policy.
Ideally this should focus on reduction of tricycle volumes, limitation of franchises through non renewal and pooling of public transport needs in an organized fashion.
Lessons learnt from South East Asia and our neighbour Uganda attest that this is no mean task. The sheer numbers of youth employed in this industry make for a potent political issue which needs to be addressed now rather than later as there is little doubt that boda bodas are a manifestation of a failed public transport policy.
Kiprono Kittony is chairman of Radio Africa Group.