From bike to drones, micro logistics golden age is nigh

Boda bodas have replaced cars at the parking lots of many supermarkets.

With Covid-19, they are the new workhorses, delivering shopping to homes and few offices in operation.

The riders dressed like soldiers going out for war are crisscrossing the city and the suburbs. They are sometimes oblivious of traffic rules and jams.

The motorbike, despite its popularity, is not a very liked innovation. We prefer to hate and loathe it, badly driven, cause of school drop out in rural areas and driven by unruly riders, usually youngsters.

The motorbike, better called “boda boda“ killed the bicycle and is now enjoying its golden age, courtesy of e-commerce.

Online buying, better-called e-commerce must be complemented by an efficient logistics system. How do you deliver goods to the buyers?

We seem to have been prepared for Covid-19. In addition to motorbikes, we have mobile phones and the internet to reach out to our friends, relatives and business partners either by calling or video.

Never mind that a smile on the video can’t be equated to a real one. A virtual kiss or hug is useless.

We have M-Pesa to pay for goods and services. One wonders how life would be if these innovations did not come before Covid-19.

The big logistic firms like UPS, DB Schenker, FedEx, DHL are having it good in the age of Covid-19 but are unsuitable for the local market. Transportation of goods is still ongoing despite Covid-19 and disruption of supply chains.

Lots of nascent courier firms have cropped up in Kenya.

A shift to this sector would have been a lifeline for Posta Kenya; we write a few letters but send lots of parcels even without Covid-19.

Big firms

However, it would be uneconomical to use such big firms to take shopping to our homes. Bulking would be hard because the shoppers are scattered and their shopping is random.

That makes micro-logistics very handy. A boda boda is cost-efficient for my household shopping. A pick-up or a lorry is not.  The flexibility of the bodaboda makes them popular in personal transport.

Lack of waiting time like matatus make them even more popular. The bodabodas transformed the rural economy and became the new status symbol.

Their role in the rural economy can only be compared with M-Pesa kiosks. They created new jobs and injected efficiency too, often slow rural areas without modern highways and other amenities.

Micro-logistics goes against economies of scale but still makes economic sense. Noted how matatu “shuttles” carries fewer passengers at higher fares. Lots of travellers are willing to pay more for convenience.

We pay more for flights not just for prestige but to save the time put into an alternative use. We pay more for convenient banking to avoid queues and access banks out of normal working hours.

We often corrupt officials to get faster service; the bribe is less than the gains from time saved. Is corruption rational?

When you shop or travel either for business or leisure, you travel as an individual. The other shoppers or travellers are irrelevant to you.

This is the gap boda bodas are filing and making their money. Transporting small quantities cost-effectively is at the heart of micro - logistics. 

It’s aided further by our love for exclusivity. Lockdowns and sheltering in place because of Covid-19 are new drivers of micro-logistics.

We are just opening a new chapter in logistics, an area that has a scarcity of earth-shaking innovations since the shipping container.

The next frontier in micro-logistics is drones. Photography is just a small part of the drone’s work. The boda boda riders should be cognisance of this reality.

Just as they “creatively destroyed” the bicycle, to quote Joseph Schumpeter, the same fate will soon befall them as drones become widespread.

Soon, my shopping order for pizza and supermarket will be delivered by a drone programmed to my GPS.

It is not unrealistic to dream of the day I will report to work in a personal drone or go sightseeing in one without queuing in airports or paying toll on highways. That age is arriving prematurely.

One of the biggest hindrances in the widespread use of drones is regulations, the technology is advanced enough. We are now trying to mimic insects like dragonflies in making the next generation of drones.

The regulation will be adjusted to make drones as ordinary as motorbikes or boda bodas.

Privacy in the use of drones is a big issue as Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) proposed rules currently in parliament indicate. 

Some might worry about too many drones, but the birds of the air never collide.

The airspace is not just for skyscrapers, it’s the next transport frontier, planes are boring and too big.

We have not even focused on space exploration into the planets, exoplanets and galaxies.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi