The downside of the Sh1 billion per day boda boda industry in Kenya

Nominated Senator Essy Okenyuri rides on a Boda boda at Kenyenya, Bomachoge Borabu in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Even with the advent of online taxis operating in Nairobi’s Central Business District, there are times you will find yourself hopping onto a motorbike to make it on time to that business meeting.

And the truth is that ride is usually exhilarating, bringing out the child in you as the rider swerves, hits brakes, and accelerates almost at the same time. It may be the adrenaline from the anxiety that you might be late or also from the child in you reliving your first ride on a two-wheeler with a 150 cc engine welded on it.

Either way, a recent report has painted a damning picture that haunts this business, which is estimated to contribute Sh1 billion daily to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

It costs a boda boda rider between Sh1,680 (USD 12.74) and Sh2.8 million (USD 20,518) to treat motorcycle-related injuries.

These injuries range from polytrauma, limb, abdomen, head, and thoracic injury.

According to a report by FIA Foundation published in March 2024, a big percentage of these accidents result in head injuries.

The report analysed records from Kenyatta National Hospital and Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital between May 2022 and October 2023.

The research team also conducted an observational study to check helmet usage on high-risk roads, namely: Mombasa Road, Kangundo Road, Outer Ring Road, Jogoo Road, and Thika Road.

The report notes that head injuries are the leading cause of hospital admission, representing more than one third of all injuries (35 per cent).

“Records from two selected hospitals in Nairobi showed almost 1,000 individuals injured in motorcycle crashes in an 18-month period. Most victims were under the age of 35 years, with boda boda operators (62 per cent) being more frequently injured than pillion passengers,” the report says.

It adds: “Six per cent of victims lost their lives while undergoing treatment; however, those that die at the scene are not captured in the records and limited data exist linked to these fatalities.”

The report states that all hospital costs, including treatment and medical procedures, are generally passed on to the patient and their family.

“Health personnel reported that, on occasion, the hospital will bear the cost on behalf of patients or their families who do not have the means to pay for treatment,” it states.

The mean stay at hospitals for motorcycle crash victims is over 18 days, the report says, during which expenses are incurred in terms of healthcare costs, as well as a loss of income for that period.

“This is especially the case for self-employed patients such as the bodaboda operators. Therefore, the injury affects the whole family, especially if a family member becomes the caregiver which can incur a further loss in household income,” the report says.

Yet, the source of income is not the primary reason most bodaboda operators are on the road.

According to the National Crime Research Centre, a state agency, youth unemployment is the leading factor in the growth of this business at 39.2 per cent, followed by demands for alternative transport at 28.4 per cent, affordability in operating costs at 23 percent, source of livelihoods at 21.8 per cent, and growing demand for transport services at 15.3 per cent.

“Commercial boda boda transport is a preferred means of transport in Kenya due to its availability, accessibility to remote rural areas, capacity to maneuver poor road terrains, narrow paths, beat traffic snarl-ups, and drop off passengers at their doorsteps that other means of transport are incapable of doing,” reads the report titled boda boda motorcycle transport and security challenges in Kenya.

The FIA Foundation report states that there is no existing data linked specifically to the economic burden that motorcycle injuries place on health services in Kenya.

It adds that motorcycle-related road traffic crashes lead to a loss of income at a household and national level.

“In many cases, the person(s) involved in motorcycle crashes is often the principal ‘breadwinner’ in a family, and the loss of income can have long-term consequences on families, as can the care requirements, and the costs associated with hospitalisation and rehabilitation,” the report says.

“Consequently, the notable increase in motorcycle road traffic injuries in Kenya places a heavy burden on low-income families and communities as well as the health system in general.”