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THE HIDDEN DRIVER OF AFRICA’S URBAN TRANSPORT CULTURE


Motorbike taxis have been in use in third-world countries for over 40 years. Initially meant for private use, these versatile public transport machines have, in the last two years, taken Africa’s urban transport by storm. Locally, these taxis have earned themselves diverse African names, which is a pointer to cultural identity. In Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, citizens call them Boda Boda, which is derived from the English word “border border.” In the 1980s, motorbike riders from Kenya would sneak passengers across the Kenya-Uganda border using motorbikes thus the name Boda Boda. In DRC, locals call them Wewas, meaning something good. In Nigeria, these motorbikes go by the name Okada. The Senegalese call them Jakarta, while Egyptians have them as Cabi. The list of these local names is long. The surge in the number and use of motorbike taxis in Africa’s urban areas could be considered a “hidden” pull factor in this fast-urbanizing continent. Pull factors are social, economic, political, technological, and environmental issues that push or drive people from rural to urban areas, or from one urban area to another. This article explores the factors influencing a robust motorbike taxi industry in a continent where 75 percent of its population will be living in urban areas by 2035 (OECD, 2020). The article also examines how this evolving culture is likely to shape the future of urban transport in the African continent. So, what are the driving factors to the growth of this “hidden” urbanization pull factor? Could the emerging culture of motorbike taxis shape the future of urban transport in Africa? First, motorbike taxis are versatile in that they can be used to transport both people and goods from one location in the city to another. Motorbike riders are usually available from the early hours of the morning to late in the night thus enabling movement of both people and their goods at their convenience. As such, individuals can conduct business till late in the night and still get home safely at an affordable cost. Additionally, those leaving for work or to the markets early in the morning to buy food can get to their destinations within the desired timeframe. More importantly, these multipurpose taxis come in handy in urban areas where heavy traffic impacts the livelihood and employment of people because they can maneuver through heavy traffic and get passengers to their respective destinations faster than cars and buses. Time is a precious resource in a busy urban life where income from both employment and business is pegged on it. Second, the motorbike taxis industry provides a ready form of employment to a growing unemployed and underemployed population while accommodating people with varied academic credentials, gender, and age. This scenario was more evident in the last two years when COVID-19 hit Africa’s economies hard. The prolonged national lockdowns that followed resulted in the loss of millions of jobs, affected livelihoods, diminished economic growth, increased poverty, and hiked school dropout rates. This notwithstanding, the motorbike taxi industry became a highly reliable source of income during the COVID-19 period. It is in major urban centers where this less regulated sector remains a source of livelihood for many poor families. This has been more evident as poverty continued to bite deep into the continent. For instance, in Kinshasa, children under the age of 18 could be seen navigating through traffic and dodging police officers for as little as $1.50 per day (Mayenikini, 2021). Despite this little income, households treasure the reliability of such a source. While commenting on the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill Gates opined that the pandemic will eventually become the single most important event that will define the times of the generations that lived through it. Third, the affordability of motorbike taxis has made them one of the highly preferred modes of transport by most urban dwellers, especially the urban poor. Although 2020 World Bank estimates suggest that the segment of Africa’s population in extreme poverty declined from 57 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2012, the years between 2015 and 2020 had 100 million more people living in extreme poverty by 2020 (World Bank, 2020) than in 2012. Urban areas tend to accommodate the lion’s share of this poor population. In a challenging economic setting like Africa, access and affordability to key amenities such as jobs, education, healthcare facilities, markets, and social networks are of paramount importance. It is not uncommon to see up to four passengers riding on a single motorbike taxi. In such circumstances, the riders share the cost of transport thus catering for their transport needs within their limited income. Besides cost of transport, affordability also applies to the cost of these motorbikes. A number of motorbike owners have acquired their machines by disposing of other household assets such as livestock or land since most owners do not qualify for bank loans. Other owners lease out the bikes at a reasonable monthly fee and still make some income. Fourth, although most of these motorbike riders work hard towards building trust with their customers for guaranteed business, things are not always great in this urban transport sector. There are cases when the riders have become villains through criminal acts. This happens when a motorbike rider poses as a trustworthy person, but instead of dropping a passenger at his/her preferred location, robs him/her of money and other valuables, and in some cases injures them. Additionally, motorbikes are vulnerable to fatal accidents since they are poorly regulated, and in most cases, both the driver and the passengers tend to ride without the required protective gear. Despite these challenges, the growth of the motorbike taxis industry appears unstoppable. The question is, will the drivers of this growth shape the future of urban transport? Should urban planners study the evolving motorbike taxi culture? What will be the implications of such drivers to the future of the growing motorbike taxi industry?

  • In the next 10 to 15 years, Africa’s urban transport infrastructure ought to be designed to accommodate motorbike taxis as a major contributor to urban-rural transport.

  • Most African governments should have a solid motorbike taxi regulatory framework that recognizes motorbikes as a key aspect of urban transport. Such a framework would regulate the motorbike taxi industry, including its safety, infrastructural standards, driver’s age limits, and traffic codes.

  • Affordability, efficiency, gender inclusivity, innovation, and job creation will most likely be the key driving factors in the growth of the motorbike taxis sector.

  • The motorbike taxis sector will most likely be one of the major employers and drivers of growth in urbanization within African cities.

  • The motorbike taxis industry will most likely be one of the key entrepreneurial activities driving urban economy and employment in Africa by 2030.

With the motorbike taxis industry playing such a pivotal role in the urban transport sector, shouldn’t African governments and their development partners take account of the emerging transport culture and related challenges? What would be the implications of ignoring this roburst transport culture?

References: Mayenikini, Jordan (2021). Children in Congo turn to motorbike taxis for work as COVID-19 bites. https://news.trust.org/item/20210304085833-wgysr/ OECD, (2020, February 7). “Africa’s Urbanization Dynamics 2020” OECDLibrary, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/development/africa-s-urbanisation-dynamics-2020_b6bccb81-en

© Anne Kyoya 2022

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