The ubiquitous motorcycle taxis are back. So are the problems associated with an unregulated and neglected sector, but they can be solved.
In Kampala, boda bodas can be found on every street, shooting between police cruisers and NGO vehicles stuck in never-ending traffic jams. Anyone who has been to Uganda's capital knows these ubiquitous motorcycle taxies offer convenience and speed, taking you exactly where you need to go without having to squeeze into a minibus with thirteen other passengers or footing it on rough roads.
On 6 February, boda bodas were finally allowed to return to full-time operations after nearly two years of Covid-19 induced lockdowns and curfews. Drivers and passengers are understandably celebrating, though a return of normal service also means a return of all the problems that come with the sector.
While boda boda trips have become as popular as minibus trips, they were never planned for. Moreover, drivers associations have often been used by politicians for campaigns and by security services for intelligence gathering and violence. As a result, many people today see boda bodas as, at best, a tolerable nuisance and, at worst, as criminals.
Politicisation and exclusion
Boda bodas first began as bicycle-taxi services in the Uganda-Kenyan borderlands in the 1960s, before spreading throughout the country. In the 1990s, the removal of import restrictions on used motorcycles and the plummeting cost of motorbike manufacturing led motorcycles to replace bikes. Boda bodas began a path of explosive growth due to the potent combination of demand for their convenient, door-to-door services and a search for self-employment by unemployed Ugandan youth.
As the sector expanded, local municipalities introduced taxes on drivers, typically requiring them to pay around USh200 (around $0.10) per day to operate. With the increasing privatisation of government services, collection of this fee was often outsourced to the boda boda associations themselves. Low fee collection was the result.
At the same time, motorcycles became the favoured getaway vehicle of criminals. Boda bodas were featured in numerous grisly crimes and the public came to associate them with criminality. Motorcycles themselves also became a target of theft and there was a wave of violent motorcycle robberies by notorious "iron-bar men".
Ahead of the first multi-party elections in 2006, President Yoweri Museveni announced that Kampala City Council could no longer extract taxes from boda boda operators. Drivers welcomed the move and began protesting - in some cases, rioting - against the town councils still trying to tax them. The violence did not help their reputation.
Regulation can be a good thing
Ugandan authorities have, at times, talked of regulating the transport system, but have given little detail about boda bodas and tend to maintain a narrow view of them.
"There's still that very traditionalist approach and perspective to the boda boda - that it's dangerous, it pollutes, it's noisy, [there are] hazards, health hazards, safety issues," says Peter Kasaija, a member of the Urban Action Lab at Makerere University.
The Kampala Capital City Authority 2020-2025 Strategic Plan, for instance, expresses the intention of "effectively regulating the transport sector, including Boda Bodas, Special Hire taxis, Commuter taxis, lorries and buses". Yet there is no mention of what this means, and the only other mention of boda bodas in the entire 96-page report is a claim that they - rather than cars, which take up more space and transport fewer people - are cluttering the streets.
The same is true in regional cities. The Mbale 2019 plan, for example, notes that motorcycles make up 67-93% of vehicles on the roads, but there is no mention of how to work with boda boda drivers. When contacted, respondents at the Mbale City physical planning office revealed that they were not aware of even the name of the boda boda association in the city.
This non-communicative approach breeds misunderstanding and ill-informed approaches. Local governments have few plans for regulation, but want to tax boda bodas, even though this cost would be passed on to the city's poorest residents who spend an eyewatering 30-50% of their incomes on boda bodas.
Solutions that benefit everyone
What would progressive regulation and engagement look like then? Some ideas may come from neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, which implemented a law last year requiring all motorcycle-taxis to use smart meters, eliminating the need for passengers to haggle with drivers. Although the meters, which are connected to a ride-hailing service but don't require an app to operate, extract a 15% commission, this is significantly lower than Uber, which takes 25% of drivers' earnings.
Infrastructural changes are also critical. In Uganda, this could include lanes for motorcycles and the construction of shady sheds at boda boda pickup zones, known as stages. The government could also work with boda boda groups to register drivers as well as organise safety trainings and the use of reflector jackets with IDs. This would help weed out criminal elements and improve their reputation. These are also measures that drivers themselves may be keen to see.
"We had, at the beginning, very good self-regulating mechanisms, which were easily overshadowed and broken down by powerful, politically motivated interests," says John Mark Mwanika, Programs Officer at ATGWU, the largest transportation workers union in Uganda. "For any regulatory initiative to work it has to speak to the political powers for buy-in, otherwise there's going to be a big, big problem."
With the end of the curfew for boda boda drivers, people can be safely delivered to their doorsteps at much lower rates than Ubers. The lobbying by boda boda bodies to reopen night-time travel has presented an opportunity for dialogue with the government. This should not be missed. The government should engage productively with boda bodas at the local and national levels. They should include their associations in drawing up transport plans as the dominant form of motorised transportation for most Ugandans. Otherwise, police violence and road recklessness will continue to take lives, and drivers and passengers alike will continue to suffer from insecurity and bureaucratic obliviousness.
Tom Courtright is a mobility and e-mobility consultant who grew up in Tanzania and is based between there and Uganda. He focuses on boda bodas and writes over at Lubyanza with Geofrey Ndhogezi.