Exploring informal sustainable mobility for East African cities

Motorcycle taxis, known as boda-bodas, are a common sight in East Africa. While they serve as an accessible transport option for many urban residents, they also pose serious safety concerns and management challenges. However, new ideas and technologies have the potential to make boda-bodas a part of sustainable mobility systems in African cities.

Boda-bodas operate as an informal industry at the city level. In discussion with ICLEI at the first regional workshop on sustainable urban mobility for East-African cities in Kampala, Ben Kukundakwe of the Uganda Police Force outlined some of the key challenges. Body-boda taxis often don’t follow the rules of the road, they drive and park wherever they please, and carry all manner of loads from entire families to sofas and goats. Many of the drivers aren’t trained, some drive intoxicated, and some even carry their passengers to isolated locations to rob them. The condition of the motorcycles leaves a lot to be desired, many of the vehicles are driven way beyond their intended lifespan and emit noxious exhaust fumes. Few of the drivers have insurance and it is rare to see them wearing helmets, let alone providing them for their passengers. It is perhaps not surprising that many urban planners ignore boda-bodas when designing the future of their cities, which arguably only makes the situation worse.

While boda-bodas are extremely difficult to manage, they provide much-needed mobility services and job opportunities, and in the absence of formal public transport they have the potential to provide a lower carbon transport option. When planning sustainable mobility systems in East Africa, boda-bodas could potentially play an important role if new ideas and technologies can be combined to upgrade their informal services.

Already the likes of Safe Boda, Taxify, Uber and Yego Moto are making inroads in larger cities in improving driver accountability and making the experience of catching a boda-boda safer and more convenient for users. A Rwandan start-up called Ampersand is developing electric motorcycles for the African market, using an innovative battery swap model that they claim makes their motorcycles cheaper to buy and operate than conventional equivalents. A combination of e-hailing, electric motorcycles and other innovations could result in new approaches to sustainable mobility that are better suited to the African context than those copied from elsewhere.

At a recent workshop in Kampala, Mayors, planners and engineers from eight East African cities that work with ICLEI through the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative and CitiesSHIFT project, met to discuss mobility in the region. As the discussion turned to solutions, the group proposed a number of actions that cities could undertake to incorporate boda-bodas into a model of sustainable urban transport in the region.

Ideas ranged from creating dedicated lanes for boda-bodas to establishing co-ops for drivers and working with national governments to reduce the costs of motorcycle driver permits. Creating dedicated lanes for boda-bodas would allow them to navigate the city without interfering with other road users, boda-boda co-ops would help drivers organize to efficiently pick up passengers and reduced bureaucratic costs could encourage more taxi operators to get training. A multi-level governance approach to dealing with boda-boda challenges is key to ensure alignment from the national to local level, and to facilitate law enforcement.

Given the importance of informal public transport in East Africa, ICLEI will continue to work with cities throughout the region to develop innovative solutions that support sustainable urban mobility.

The workshop in Kampala was funded by BMZ via GIZ and the Hewlett Foundation as part of the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative and CitiesSHIFT project respectively.

To learn more about these initiatives or share ideas and experiences on boda-boda taxi management, please contact us at tumi-network@iclei.org.