The ‘boda boda’ business: A pass out of poverty?

Boniface Wabwoba (in black jacket), standing next to his motor-bike in Bungoma town.  He tells me owning the motor bike has brought a lot of social and financial difference in his life. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

Fifty-year-old Boniface Wabwoba walks with a limp. He wasn’t born that way. This was the result of an accident he was involved in way back in 2011. He was in and out of hospital until 2015, when he went back to his ‘boda boda’ business.

But the limp has not dampened his spirit...

Every day, he leaves his village in Sirare, and rides for 12 kilometres to Bungoma town, where he plies his trade in the town centre.

During the time he was in and out of hospital, the heavy responsibility of providing for the family fell on his wife.

“When I heard about the Bungoma County Motorbike Sacco (Bucomot), I sold my cow for Sh20,000 and joined the Sacco,” he told me at his place of business.

The amount enabled him to access a loan which he used to buy a motor-bike. He tells me owning the motor bike has brought a lot of social and financial difference in his life.

He has been able to educate his daughter up to form four, something that he says would have been impossible without his motor-bike. His wife now uses most of her time to tend to their farm and animals, unlike before when she had to fend for the entire family and also cater for Boniface’s medical bills.

Before the accident, Boniface was employed as a rider and he had to wake up at 4 am each morning, so he could work and earn enough money, which would then be shared between him and his employer.

Today, he leaves home at 7 am and keeps all the money he earns. He is home by 6 pm and thus has more time with his family. Before that, he was always on call and could be called out at any time of the night, which always posed a security risk.

With his improved fortunes, Boniface joined up with other riders to form a chama where they save money on a daily basis. ‘Chamas’ are informal societies which are normally used to pool and invest savings.

Boniface is organising secretary of Christ the King Self Help Group which has a membership of 56. They contribute Sh200 each day and he helps to coordinate collection of the money every day.

Through this arrangement, he says he is assured of saving not less than Sh8,000. This is besides the earnings he gets from his ‘boda boda’ business.

His colleague Emmanuel Wafula says the boda boda business has been god-sent for him. The business has helped him save enough money and buy cows as well as invest in land.

The group’s chairperson, Pius Kundu, tells me members are not just consuming what they earn but are also collectively saving some of it in a bank. They plan to buy a vehicle and start transport business as well as open a spare-parts shop. All this by 2017.

Pius, who has has been in the boda boda business for the last 21 years, says the group’s aim is to change the welfare of its members and help them acquire motor bikes.

He says the business has enabled him educate some of his nephews and nieces who are now self-reliant.

“My children are going to school and my wife is also in college, courtesy of the money I get from the business,” he says.

As happens in many communities, Boniface has brought a young relative into the business, who uses his motorcycle when he is busy with some other engagements.

Mark Wafula, 23, was making bricks before he joined the business and now dreams of making enough money to invest in bricks and build a house.

He has so far been able to buy over 20 iron sheets which he intends to use for building a house. This achievement is no mean feat for a young person in the village. His intention is to buy 56 iron sheets.

“I do this work to be an example to my age mates. Show them what they can achieve by doing something tangible with their lives. It saddens me that majority of them are idle, lost in drugs, alcohol, gambling or video games. They have no hope or future if they continue that way,” he says.

These men are only a sample of the many people whose economic welfare has drastically improved courtesy of the boda boda business. It is no longer in question that this industry is growing in leaps and bounds. Data from the Motorcycle Assembly Association of Kenya shows that the business generates an estimated Sh400 million daily. It employs over 100,000 Kenyans and some 14.4 million people use this mode of transport every day.

With these types of statistics, the boda boda can no longer be ignored by the powers that be seeing as it has firmly established itself as a means of employment and a source of revenue for the Government.

The industry has since caught the attention of National Transport and Safety Authority, a state-owned agency mandated to manage road transport in Kenya, which introduced rules to govern the boda boda industry.

One of these is that operators must belong to a Sacco and it is in following this directive that Bungoma County Motorbike Sacco was established in 2013. Bucomot is not the only such Sacco in the county but it is the largest with a membership of close to 2,000.

Treasurer Benson Nyongesa says the Sacco has become an answer to the ‘slavery’ that some employers subjected the riders to.

“Having one’s own motorbike has many advantages. It gives a person financial freedom, one can work when they wish and rest when they want, they can build their own house and do many other things which they cannot do if employed by someone else,” he says.

The riders pulling their resources together has not been in vain. Already, Bucomot has bought two buses which ply the Nairobi-Bungoma route. The CEO Moffats Roberts Nabaalah says members should expect to receive dividends at the end of the year.

“I desire to reorganise the boda boda industry and create order in how its affairs are run. We hold awareness meetings for our members where we encourage them to use riding gear and obey all traffic rules,” he says.

But as the two officials pointed out, while the requirement for boda boda operators to be affiliated to Saccos is there, it is a challenge to have some riders come on-board.

“Some are yet to fully embrace the culture of saving money. Others are afraid of saving with Saccos because of past experiences with other financial institutions, where their expectations were not met,” Nyongesa says.

—This report was a result of a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand