By: Dishon Amanya
Bungoma Town was formerly known for the Boda boda Operators, in the absence of vehicles and good road networks in the rural areas of Western Kenya, young entrepreneurs started up the environmentally-friendly “boda boda” bicycle business that ferries clients from main roads to villages .
In the rural areas of Kenya, some opportunistic youth capitalized on poor road networks and lack of vehicles to earn their daily bread. They offered transportation on a “boda boda,” a bicycle with a brightly colored cushioned pad attached behind the seat, used for carrying one passenger at a time. Bicycle shuttle services were, in some areas, the only way of maneuvering around.
Boda bodas have been around since 1990, when young people in Busia, a town that shares a border with Uganda, used bicycles to smuggle goods across the border. In fact, “boda boda” comes from the English word “border.”
These youths quickly realized that the same bicycles they used to carry goods from Kenya to Uganda and back could also ferry people in the villages of Western Kenya. It later spread its wings to neglected rural villages in the Western region and beyond.
With an estimated 90 percent of Kenyan roads not being paved, according to the 2001 budget report on rural development, and many roads being impassable by vehicles, the boda boda became a versatile, quick, and reliable form of transportation.
David Shiundu, Boda boda operator in Bungoma who has worked as a boda boda for more than 20 years now explained that, The boda boda industry, he says, has created employment for many youth, cutting down on social problems such as crime, Sexual harassment, and drug abuse.
It has also become a source of income for mostly male secondary school graduates who would otherwise be unemployed. In Bungoma, a boda boda operator can make approximately Sh300 a day after deducting the cost of lunch and repairs to the bicycle.
This wage is higher than the average earnings of most people in the villages. This wage, however, is generally not high enough to feed, cloth, or take care of the medical expenses of a family.
“There being scant employment opportunities, and I have to live or die, I opted for boda-boda”, says 45-year-old David Shiundu, who travels from tarmac to village and back in Bungoma Town.
“When I finished secondary school six years ago, employment prospects were low. Doom lingered over my future and I didn’t know where to depend for survival,” he says.
Shiundu says that it is by the grace of God that his father gave him his bicycle and encouraged him to operate a bicycle taxi. “I’m now comfortable and can feed my two children and educate them.
Thirty-year-old Hamadi Yusufu had just finished school and due to unemployment he ventured into boda boda operating.
“I knew I must look for money, but since most of my age-mates operate bicycle taxis, I joined them, and the struggle continued,” he says.
Hamadi charges approximately sh.20 for every kilometer travelled. An operator cycles 50 kilometers a day on average, he says.
“When somebody has paid, you’re forced to ride even in hilly places,” says the sweaty Hamadi. “It is also hard riding on these ragged roads. Riding in the meandering paths is as perilous as going through a jungle; you have to be smart lest you fall down with your customer.” To make the ride easier, most operators have fixed a small transistor radio onto their bicycles, cushioned the carrier, and put an alarm bell on their bars.
Business booms at the end of the year, when most people who live in cities and towns return to their rural homes for Christmas holidays.
We got a chance to talk to the boda boda user who depends on them to commute to work daily. Mary wafula said it is the cheapest means and since it has a history they cannot ignore them but promote them.
“These boys are a blessing,” says Mary Wafula, a primary school teacher in Bungoma. “Formerly, we had to trek for long distances in the rough road villages, getting late and missing important meetings. Now, it’s a quick service we have in our villages.”
Boda boda drivers have the reputation of being honest and trustworthy. Some village traders entrust them with as much as Sh1, 000 to purchase goods from wholesalers in Towns. Otherwise, if it were somebody else, our money would be disappearing into the air.” Wafula who has used boda-boda for over five years explained.
Mr. Mike Sagana, a private clinical practitioner in Bungoma town said that operating a boda boda has its medical challenges.
“I know the boys get money, but the medical complications associated with such strenuous tasks are so wanting.
“In the first place, these people don’t get a proper diet, thus their health deteriorates acutely,” he says. “Due to the dusty roads and cold weather, they contract pneumonia, bronchitis, and acute flu. Some develop kidney stones as a result of the body emptying a lot of acid.”
Baraza has personally diagnosed these diseases in many taxi operators. He advises them to get warm clothing during cool weather and wear masks when the road is dusty. “Also, a proper diet is quite essential and there is no compromise for that,” he added.