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Boda bodas: Beyond the law and economic reality on people

Nyanza regional police boss Karanja Muiruri inspects the 126 motorcycles seized at Kisumu CBD on March 9th 2022. [Collins Odour, Standard]

The video of a female driver being harassed by boda boda riders went viral and the reaction was immediate. From the streets to State House, everyone was up in arms.

They all demanded that the culprits must be punished.

The video came just before we celebrated International Women’s Day. That has fed into conspiracy mills.

Before I join the rest of my countrymen in anger, I would like to ask a few questions. Our profession demands objectivity in any analysis.

One, who recorded this video clip? Would he not be a millionaire paid lots of money for such a scoop? Why is his name not being disclosed? Could he be accused of videotaping someone without her consent?

Two, legally speaking, the suspect is just that. Why is he being tried by the media? One local daily called him “The beast of Forest Road.” Why use an old name? Yet, the suspect is a father of two, and until this incident, a citizen earning an honest living.

If he is a beast, what word would we use to describe terrorists or bandits killing innocent people?

Three, the outrage was justified because men ought to protect women, it has always been that way since the dawn of civilisation. But why no such outrage over bandits in Baringo and Laikipia? I am in no way belittling the incident, but our anger should not be selective.

Four, and out of curiosity, would we have reacted the same if a man was harassed by say a group of women? Five, why is the identity of that lady evolving, from a female driver to worker for a UN agency to a diplomat? Her name is being withheld for legal reasons. Should the suspect’s name not be withheld too; he is innocent till proved guilty?

What does our Bill of Rights say in the Constitution? Enough questions. Let’s return to the heart of the matter. This incident should go beyond a viral video. In the last few years, the boda boda sector has grown through leaps and bounds - only rivaled by telecommunications.

We need to give this sector an honourable name, micrologistics. The sector kept the economy going during Covid-19. But its lasting legacy is creating millions of jobs, between 1.2 million to 1.5 million. What would all these young men and few women be doing without boda bodas?

Think of it, we have more boda boda riders than all government employees including teachers, police, soldiers and county workers.

A bad guy should not spoil the whole industry. I know very humble and working riders, but they have been bunched together with everyone else. It’s collective punishment.

This sector grew fast because it was unregulated, just like the internet, anyone could get a motorbike and put it on the road, and the demand was there. Many parts of the country had no reliable means of transport. We also became more time conscious. It makes more sense to take a boda instead of waiting for a bus to fill up. In the urban centres, they can navigate the traffic jams.

Even Uber noted their potential.

Boda bodas created more efficiency in the economy and must have added a few points to Gross Domestic Product growth.

The last time we rebased our economy, we cited growth in the ICT sector. What about another rebasing to include boda boda sector?

The Sh1 billion daily or Sh7 billion weekly from boda boda sector translates into Sh364 billion a year.

That is enough to build four Nairobi Expressways and get some change. The boda boda sector attracts youngsters.

It’s a status symbol and has low barriers to entry. With about Sh100,000, you are in business.

That has led to school dropouts as young men seek the status that goes with owning a motorbike.

Youth like taking risks, the reason boda bodas have led to deaths and injuries. Manoeuvrability makes motorbikes ideal for committing crimes too, just like the police like them for patrolling.

But overall, the benefits of boda bodas far outweigh their social-economic costs. We can’t appreciate that because we still think bodas bodas are a nuisance. We even ban them in the city centre. We seem reluctant to accept that our economy is still 80 per cent informal. Why else does the hustler story sell?

My worry is that the crackdown will stifle this industry. We should not solve an economic problem politically using the police. Demand and reality have created boda bodas.

What’s is missing is regulation. We should not use this Forest Road (Prof Wangari Maathai Road) incident to overregulate this sector or to settle political scores. Some self-regulation would do and implement the traffic rules. Why not treat boda boda like any other traffic?

Let’s not forget that the flexibility in boda bodas makes them attractive, they can use any side of the road, turn anywhere, drop you anywhere. That’s what customers want.

Ever wondered why tuktuks have never had the same success? The new regulations, if any should be informed by economic reality, not our emotions. The crackdown has affected deliveries and e-commerce by extension. Even boda bodas doing deliveries have been affected by the crackdown. One entrepreneur in this sector says, “Huge bail from Sh10,000 to Sh30,000 is out of reach for most riders. A fine of Sh35,000 is enough down payment for a new bike.”

No wonder motorbikes fill police stations. The hard reality is that motorcycles are now an integral part of our economy. How about scaling up to manufacture motorbikes?

Why not ride on Africa Free Trade Area to the export market? Some think as we become more affluent, we shall shift to cars and motorbikes will slowly leave the market, I find that in developed countries.

Boda bodas will become toys. Before that time comes, let us respect the riders and their economic contribution. Many of these young men would love to get better jobs than riding bikes. Has the State created the right environment for alternative jobs? Who would not love to upgrade from boda boda to a pick-up or better? Which presidential candidate will ensure that?