This week we’re discussing a form of transport I’d not encountered before moving to East Africa, but that is now my primary form of transit: the motorbike taxi.
There’s more than meets the eye to getting on the back of a motorbike and so we’ll cover the history, market dynamics, and improvements to the industry that have taken place over the past few years.
(Swahili for ‘Let’s go’, common way to signal to the driver you’re ready for the trip to start)
To the border!
First, some terminology. In East Africa (or rather Kenya and Uganda) a motorbike taxi is called a “boda boda”, or more simply “boda”.
When motorbikes first arrived on the scene in East Africa the main purpose was to take people to Kenya: Uganda border.
People in possession of a motorbike would canvas potential customers by offering a lift to the “border?”.
The association stuck, and with time the way to reference a motorbike taxi was to call it this repeated phrase. Written out in Swahili-English (which is almost 100% phonetic) this becomes “boda boda”.
Why they’re popular
Beyond the borders, bodas are a very popular form of transport in Nairobi.
The main reason: traffic jams.
Roads in Nairobi easily get clogged up, and there aren’t the public transport options (e.g. metro, dedicated bus lanes) that exist elsewhere.
If you can afford it, you drive a car everywhere. Otherwise, you’re in a matatu (public/ private minivan). Both of these are somewhat at the mercy of traffic jams meaning you can be spending 45+ minutes doing a trip that on a clear day would take 10.
Bodas can weave through traffic and get you to your destination much quicker.
Who uses bodas?
Mainly in the middle class.
The majority of Nairobians will only be able to afford to walk or take a matatu (~10-30c one way) whereas the average cost of an equivalent 15-minute boda journey is $1.
Traditionally at least, if you can afford a car it’s not really “the done thing” to take a boda, you’d rather be late and maintain your appearance.
One thing that really stressed me out when I first arrived in Rwanda was where to put my hands.
The short version is that stabilise you either sit normally or place your hands on the back, rather than giving the driver cuddle.
Who’s driving bodas?
A couple of years ago I interviewed a company in Uganda doing lease financing on motorbikes so boda drivers could own their bikes.
The founder said how it’s almost exclusively young men who ride the bikes (their female counterparts wouldn’t take the risk).
Are they… safe?
There’s obviously a risk: reward with any transport decision that one makes.
There are a few considerations one might make in deciding what form of transport to take:
- % accident
- % “mugged”
Taking a boda almost always wins on 1. and 2.
I find them quite comfortable, though when it’s raining, a (car) taxi wins on 3.
When people talk about “safety” they’re mostly talking about 4. (5. should, I guess, also be a consideration).
Whilst I know that the statistics for getting injured in a motorbike accident outweighs being in a car, my experience in Nairobi and Kampala is that the roads are so busy that it’s rare to get to a high enough speed for any serious damage to getting done.
Often you’ll be traversing a line of semi-stationary cars and so I’ve never felt in grave danger should something unexpected pull out in front of the road.
How it used to be
I believe that driving bodas is an unregulated business – if you have a bike you can go out and earn money by giving people a lift on the back.
The experience when I arrived (~ October 2016) wasn’t great.
The typical process was:
- Walk out on the street and flag down a guy on his bike
- Explain the destination and haggle on the cost
- Get on the back
- 25% likelihood of having a helmet, even then, very poor quality
- At destination (over)pay cash or mobile money
There were some apps beginning to emerge, but the supply of drivers was so low it would end up taking ages and be easier to just find someone nearby.
The lack of good helmet was, for me, a biggie, and so I would carry around my own helmet which was pretty cumbersome, especially when arriving at meetings.
How it is now
A company called SafeBoda has really led the way in professionalising the industry in East Africa.
Their main focus is (you guessed it) safety and so each driver and passenger has a high-quality helmet, high vis jacket and the driver is monitored on how fast they go.
Other ride-hailing apps (Uber, Taxify (now Bolt)) that started as just car taxis started offering a boda service too within the same app.
A timeline of professionalisation
I can really say that SafeBoda is the rising tide that lifted all boats in the boda industry in Kenya.
SafeBoda began in Uganda and then came to Nairobi in 2018.
Once they established liquidity (by having enough drivers on the app that it took <5 minutes to get a ride) they were in pole position, because the helmet and service from SafeBoda drivers were better than Uber and Bolt.
What happened in the past couple of months is that Bolt (and some Uber) boda drivers have now also been supplied with really good quality helmets which means whenever you order a ride through an app you’re much more protected.
There’s also the benefit of the price being set by the app and cashless, an automatic payment which all of them have.
Hyper competitive market
The improved supply has grown demand.
Anecdotally there are many (mostly female) people I know who now consider taking a boda as a legit form of transport owing to the improved safety.
What this also means is that there’s competition from the boda apps to get your custom.
Each one seems to take turns in to offer 50% off on rides meaning the price for the rider is incredibly affordable. There are also so many drivers on the road that you’re never far from getting a ride.
They also each “own” a colour:
Drivers switch between the apps
As much as the boda apps want drivers to stay loyal to them, almost all drivers have multiple apps on their phones and will switch between them when searching for their next ride.
This has quite a strange consequence when you can be, say, ordering a trip on Bolt and then a driver turning up in a SafeBoda helmet.
A couple of weeks ago I had the holy trinity of:
- Uber jacket
- Bolt helmet
- … ordered on SafeBoda
From speaking to drivers, there have been some measures taken to increase the loyalty of drivers to one app (each good helmet given out is a decent $ investment they want to recoup) such as a minimum number of rides a boda driver must do per day through that app to stay on the platform.
What it looks like from here
Across the continent, there is more and more investment in companies looking to professionalise and capture value from the disparate motorbike transit market.
In terms of an industry that has the scale to make a good return as a B2C company in Africa, motorbike hailing is probably one of the few that can do it in the near term.
For now though, in Nairobi at least, the increased competition and rising standards mean that the main benefactor from these investments is the consumer: who gets affordable and convenient transport without as much downside risk.
In other news…
Between other bits of work this week I did my first interview in a while for The East Africa Business Podcast.
It’ll be released in a few weeks once I’ve done some more, and was with a board game café which had some interesting insights, especially about the (limited) culture of board games in the region.
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