For anyone who wants to reach a destination quickly in Kampala, there are few options apart from using boda boda. However, the lack of regulation in this rapidly-growing sector has bred crime, accidents, disorder and recklessness so much so that even KCCA failed to put boda bodas to order.
However, the arrival of technology innovations such as SafeBoda, Uber boda and Taxify, among others, has streamlined the sector and could be the long-term solution to the chaos, writes BAKER BATTE LULE.
A few weeks ago, a workmate ordered for me a SafeBoda ride from The Observer office in Kamwokya to Kyaliwajjala in Kira municipality, Wakiso district. On reaching my destination, the rider asked for Shs 4,000. "Four, what?" I asked in bewilderment.
Ironically, the rider thought I was disputing the figure. "Ask the person who ordered... she has also got the receipt," the rider replied, sounding defensive. I wasn't in anyway disputing the figure but I was left ajar at how cheap the journey was.
A few days earlier, I had made a smilar trip from Namboole stadium and the boda boda rider charged me Shs 12,000 to The Observer. We settled for Shs 8,000.
So, given how cheap this journey was, I straightaway downloaded the SafeBoda app together with that of Taxify and Uber. My tech-savvy colleagues Jonathan Kamoga and Yudaya Nangonzi had for months been using the apps.
On the first day after getting the apps, I ordered for a Taxify boda boda which arrived at The Observer office within three minutes. My destination was Makerere University main gate. For ages I had procrastinated about buying a crash helmet despite having had a boda boda accident last year in August that almost cost my life.
I only think about it every time I take a ride which is quite often, by the way. The first thing my rider did before I mounted his bike was to hand me a crash helmet. [In the past, many boda boda users had misgivings about using crash helmets provided by the riders for fear of contracting skin diseases. But nowadays, disposable head covers are given to be worn first before putting on the helmet.]
To my amusement, the rider stopped at the Wandegeya traffic lights just like other motorists did. Those I have taken before never stop at traffic lights. As we waited for the lights to signal green, I saw other riders in yellow and green reflector jackets also in tow. It took us about seven minutes to reach my destination.
The rider stopped his racing app and then showed me a receipt showing Shs 1,000 as the cost of the trip. My own receipt on my phone came a few minutes later. Smiling from ear to ear, I paid the Shs 1,000 and walked away while cursing myself for not having downloaded the apps much earlier. I have been paying Shs 2,000 for this same journey for the last one year.
From Makerere, I had a rendezvous at Nakasero mosque on Entebbe road. This time I requested for a SafeBoda. The app showed me that the price range was between Shs 1,500 and Shs 2,000.
My rider arrived two minutes later and handed me the helmet and after I was ready, he started the counting. Ten minutes later we were at Nakasero and my charge was Shs 1,500. I have always haggled for Shs 2,000 for the same journey but most often the rude riders tell you Shs 2,000 stops at Shell Capital.
For Nakasero you have to part with Shs 3,000. That same day I made another trip to Mpererwe on the outskirts of Kampala.
The traffic jam was incessant but my rider neither rode on the pavements like his colleagues nor used the opposite direction of the traffic. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the destination and my charge was Shs 4,000.
SafeBoda is the pioneer boda boda app service and hit the Ugandan market in 2014. Little wonder that there are more orange reflector jackets and helmets than others. The company was cofounded by Ricky Papa Thompson, a former security guard.
According to Damalie Wasukira, the company's communication manager, all one needs to join SafeBoda is a valid driving licence, a national identification card, a stage where he is based and a letter from the next of kin.
Wasukira says before enrolling, riders are taken through a three-day training on road safety, customer service and tech usage. Shs 25,000 is paid for those with smartphones while those without pay Shs 50,000 and are given a smartphone which they pay for in instalments.
"Through the app, the riders always have business; many can spend the whole day without sitting at the stage because as soon as they drop someone somewhere, they get another request," she says.
Wasukira says the SafeBoda takes 15 per cent off every trip that the rider makes courtesy of the app. The rest of the money goes to the rider. Like Taxify, SafeBoda has two payment options; cash and credit. Wasukira says a good number of their clients buy SafeBoda credit using mobile money from which payments are made.
"Using mobile money, you can deposit it in your SafeBoda Wallet such that every time you take a trip, it automatically deducts the fare so you don't have to move around with cash," she says. For the credit payment, riders are paid their part of the share at the end of every week. She says a rider can get as much as Shs 500,000 a week.
"I'm absolutely certain SafeBoda is going to continue growing; we found the formula of creating a much more organised boda boda industry because people have realized the need to have order. We hope to move to all major cities in Africa and right now we are piloting in Nairobi, Kenya."
Government officials and agencies such as the police, KCCA, ISO, among others, have in the past fought for the control of the boda boda industry in Uganda. That is how individuals like the now jailed former Boda Boda 2010 patron Abdallah Kitatta became so powerful. KCCA tried in vain to have the riders registered. It met untold resistance from police.
Mike Kaggwa, a rider at Nkinzi stage Wandegeya, says the coming on board of companies such as SafeBoda, Taxify and Uber has seen a turnaround in the boda boda industry.
"There has been reduction in crimes associated with boda bodas because the first requirement for joining these companies is discipline," he says.
Although he is not yet a member of any of the three tech companies, he is mesmerised with the way his colleagues obey traffic rules, offer good customer care and better hygiene compared to individual boda boda riders.
"I'm still hesitant to join them because I'm not certain about their motives. Why would anyone charge very low prices like that? A trip we used to charge Shs 5,000, they are now charging Shs 2,000; how do they benefit?" he wonders.
For Silva Matsiko, the boda boda chairman for Buziga Katuuso stage in Makindye division, he has no kind words for the tech companies.
"They interfered with our job; our customers are all opting for them... we can now spend the whole day sitting without anyone to ride," he says. Unlike Kaggwa who is considering to join, Matsiko thinks that with time many riders who joined these tech companies will realise what a terrible mistake they made.
"I can be your permanent rider which is not the case for them, because you can only request for them through the phone," he says. He adds that the riders also spend a lot of airtime calling customers who have made request on top of buying mobile internet data to run the app.
Godfrey Ntambi, a rider at Katuba stage on Ham shopping centre, is all praises for having joined SafeBoda. In this era of kidnaps and killings, people want to take boda bodas that are easily identifiable.
Our helmets and reflector jackets have numbers; our bio data is also available to the customer before they take our services. Therefore, a passenger can confidently take a SafeBoda without any fears," he says. Meanwhile, Farouq Babalanda, a rider at Nakivubo stage, is a member of Uber and regrets why he took so long to join.
"I'm now forced to save because we get paid once a week. When I receive my money in lumpsum, I'm able to do something more meaningful from it than previously," he says. To Theodore Byamugisha, whose stage is Total Nsambya in Makindye division, tech companies like SafeBoda, Taxify and Uber have eased transportation in Kampala.
"There has been reduction in hit-and-run accidents in Kampala because the passenger has all the information about the rider before even the journey starts. So, it's now very easy to track them," he says.
Byamugisha also has a message for those riders who are yet to join these apps. "By the time they wake up to join, it might be too late because everybody has been calling for a more organised boda boda industry and with this, government needs not to spend a coin on registering."
SOME WAY TO GO
Metropolitan Kampala is estimated to have about 100,000 boda boda riders. Boda boda groups such as Century, Kambe and Tugende still control a sizeable number of riders but Wasukira says SafeBoda is making inroads.
"We currently have about 2,500 registered riders and there has been a surge of applications to join," she says.
A source who is part of the KCCA tasked with drafting the law to govern the boda boda industry says they are keenly following the breakthroughs of the tech apps.
"These companies are organised and will ease our work to regulate the industry because they have the riders' bio data and on top of it, they have strict rules on road usage and discipline," he says.