boda boda blues

African cities grapple with two-wheeled transport conundrum

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on July 8, 2019 11:58

Sales of motorbikes are soaring even as African cities try to ban them.

Explaining the ban, which took effect on 7 July, Addis mayor Takele Uma said it was designed to curb crime.

Takele said the Ethiopian city had found that an unusually high number of violent crimes were committed using motorcycles. The ban does not affect “those conducting licensed businesses with motorcycles and those who use motorcycles as postal carriers and motorcycles used by diplomatic missions”.

For commuters in Addis Ababa, the ban adds to the transportation problems the capital already suffers.

  • Africa’s second-most populous country is also one of the least motorised countries in the world – the number of cars in the country of 100 million people is estimated at fewer than 1m, most of them in the capital.
  • The country only produces 8,000 commercial and private vehicles a year, which does not satisfy demand.
  • Last year, the Addis Ababa City Transport Authority did a study on the three-wheeler taxis known as bajaj and planned to impose a new tax and increase regulations. It estimated that they transport 635,000 people per day in the city.

Kenya, meanwhile, now registers around 16,000 motorbikes a month, up tenfold in a decade.

  • The increase was driven by a government decision to remove duty on motorbikes of low engine capacity in 2007, which opened up the market and led to a flood of two-wheelers that its cities are still grappling with.
  • There are now an estimated 1 million motorbikes in operation, and repair of motorbikes is one of the few sources of employment still expanding in the country.
  • In 2016, the government scrapped KSh10,000 ($97) excise duty on motorbikes, further bringing down the price.

Known as boda boda in East Africa, okada in Nigeria and taxi-motos in francophone Africa, informal motorcycle taxis have taken up the slack from strained or non-existent public transport systems as urban populations grow. A nifty solution for Africans on the move, they represent a new headache for city administrators.

  • A study published in 2017 estimated that the two-wheeler market in Africa will cross the $9bn mark by 2022 “due to growing populations, rising urbanisation and an absence of reliable public transportation systems” in many African cities.
  • The largest markets, according to the study, are South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, followed by Kenya, Algeria, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco, Angola and Ethiopia.

In Nairobi, governor Mike Sonko has been trying to balance a ban on motorcycles in the city with attempts to regulate the sector.

The ban was attempted in 2015 by his predecessor, Evans Kidero, and the city government followed it up with a new directive in January last year.

  • Last month, Sonko released 800 motorbikes from the city pound but warned: “The order […] does not mean that I have allowed boda bodas back to the streets of Nairobi’s CBD.”
  • At least twice, in 2016 and 2018, the courts have sided with the city on the ban.

Other cities that have banned motorcycles include Monrovia, which did so after motorcyclists torched a bus that had hit and killed a motorcyclist.

  • In 2016, Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, also banned them, citing grenade attacks carried out by people on motorbikes.
  • In 2011, the Nigerian city of Maiduguri banned okadas as a security measure against Boko Haram. The terror sect’s switch from nonviolence to violence is often traced back to a helmet policy in 2009, where police officers opened fire on a group heading to bury a motorcyclist who had died in an accident. The terror group then used motorcycles for ride-by shootings, leading many Nigerian cities to ban them. To solve the transport crisis, the city of Maiduguri instead subsidised motorised three-wheeler taxis-known locally as Keke NAPEP.
  • Lagos banned motorcycles below 200cc from most thoroughfares in 2012, forcing emerging ride-hailing companies such as Gokada and to offer their riders motorcycles above that threshold.

Ride-hailing companies are indeed one solution to the regulation problem, with several players already in the market. Some, such as Gokada,, Oride and SafeBoda are already spreading their wings across Africa.

Even taxi-hailing services such as Uber and Bolt (formerly Taxify) have a boda boda option in cities such as Nairobi.

The undisputed two-wheeler capital in Africa, Kampala, has also had the longest run at trying to regulate them within city limits.

  • In July last year, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni banned motorcycle drivers from covering their heads with anything but helmets. Days before, a legislator and his bodyguard had been shot dead in a ride-by shooting.
  • In 2006, Kampala banned motorcycles from the roads after 11pm.
  • Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, did likewise. Both cities cited a rise in crime and road accidents as the reason.
  • The legend of boda boda crimes in Kampala is so storied that it has inspired at least one movie, Boda Boda Thieves (2015), where the main character, already engaged in crimes with his father’s boda boda, is himself robbed of the bike.

While Kampala faltered on the ban and is still struggling to regulate two-wheelers, Kigali replaced its ban with extensive regulation.

  • Still, it had a crisis three years ago after a wave of murders linked to motorcycle thefts: in this case, cyclists were the victims.

Bottom line: For city administrators, regulating motorcycles is not just a transportation problem, but also a security one. Banning them from city limits without proper solutions for the many socioeconomic roles they play – as sources of employment, and convenient and affordable transportation – may not be the right long-term solution.

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