Study: Why ‘bodabodas’ rule

Bodaboda operators zoom past vehicles stuck in a traffic jam in Dar es Salaam. Motorcycle taxis save economies millions daily by expediting the movement of people and goods in Africa’s cities normally bogged down by traffic jams and poor roads. PHOTOS | FILE


  • PUBLIC TRANSPORT: It’s true they’re fuelling crime and causing deaths, but a new study says ‘bodabodas’ are boosting economies
  • Hate them or love them, but a study by the World Bank says bodabodas are here to stay at least  for some years to come in sub- Saharan Africa, thanks to the fragile public transport and poor infrastructure

Dar es Salaam. If you thought bodabodas are annoying motorists as well as pedestriansa and fuelling crime, then there’s something else big—they are fuelling growth of home delivery services to traffic-weary city residents, according to a new study published by the World Bank early this week.

In cities where it could take as much as five hours to go from one end to another—the equivalent of flying from Dar es Salaam to Dubai – bodabodas and okadas are saving millions, according to the study.

Though these bodabodas annoy many in our cities especially motorists and pedestrians, the new study by the World Bank says they have improved e-commerce and movement of people in most congested cities in Sub Saharan Africa.

Hate them or love them, but according to a study by the World Bank dubbed, “Understanding the emerging role of motorcycles in African cities—A political economy perspective,” bodabodas are here to stay at least in many years to come—thanks to the fragile public transport and poor infrastructure.

To bodaboda riders, mostly young men, taking high risk to juggle with trucks, light vehicles and buses, in a bid to overtake the surging traffic jams as well as satisfy their customers’ demand is one of the required skills. With little knowledge of road safety, in Dar es Salaam, for instance, bodaboda riders overrule traffic lights and overtake motorists on the wrong side, because their survival depends on the ability to ferry customers as fast as they can to their destinations.

In Dar es Salaam they are known as bodabodas; in Nigeria they are called okadas —but they are simply motorbikes and tricycles, which have become the darling of millions of dwellers in African cities.

There are roughly 27,000 bajaj in the city—almost three times the number of light passenger buses.

In Tanzania, there were 587,936 motorcycles by the end of last year, with nearly seventy per cent of these believed to be in Dar es Salaam alone, where they operate as passengers vessels.

From January to October last year, 118,047 motor cycles were on the road—with many being used as passenger vessels,” according to statistics obtained by The Citizen.

Public transport collapse

After the collapse of public bus transport in most African cities in the 1980s and 1990s, the minibus moved in to fill the vacuum. Notoriously unregulated, poorly maintained and dangerously driven, minibuses - known under various colloquial names, such as tro-tro in Accra, danfo in Lagos, gbaka in Abidjan, sotrama in Bamako, daladala in Dar es Salaam and matatu in Nairobi—have been the dominant means of transport. But even they haven’t been able to keep up with the demand of the African urban boom of the past ten or so years. In 2000, one in three Africans lived in a city; by 2030, one in two will.

The growth rate of cities like Dar es Salaam, Douala and Lagos has been 6 per cent per year, meaning that it takes just under 12 years for their populations to double. Even relatively slower-growing cities like Accra, Kinshasa and Nairobi have been posting growth rates of 4 per cent, at which it takes 17 years to double the city’s population. 

Effectively, African cities are choking on growth, and there’s one unlikely hero to the rescue – the motorcycle taxi, known by various names including okada or bodaboda. Mind-blowing bodabodas continue to surge

In Douala and Lagos motorbikes outnumber regular minibuses two to one, but in Kampala, it’s 6:1, with 7,000 minibuses and about 43,000 bodabodas, says a study by the Sub Saharan Africa Transport Policy Programme (SSATP) published by the World Bank. One unverified estimate puts it at an astonishing 300,000 bodabodas in Kampala.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the motorcycles are the preserve of the poor who cannot afford private vehicles, but the data suggests otherwise; that it is also partly the consuming middle class fuelling the surge in motorcycle taxis – both indirectly through their demand for home deliveries, as well as directly as passengers.

The World Bank paper indicates that the middle class and the rich in Douala make twice as many trips by motorbikes as do the poor, and data from three African cities shows that a motorbike ride is significantly more expensive per kilometre than a minibus or bus ride.

The bodaboda’s competitive advantages are numerous in African cities which are increasingly grid locked by day-long traffic jams – they offer speed, convenience, door-to-door service, flexibility and the ability to serve low density areas that are not commercially attractive to large buses.

Apart from the direct effects of high demand for transport—there are just 6 bus seats per 1,000 residents, this analysis of 14 major African cities says, compared to 30-40 in cities in Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia—there are other factors driving the huge upsurge of motorcycle taxis seen in the past decade or so.

First is that not only are Africa’s cities attracting more people, they are also getting more spread out, and this becomes unattractive for large bus companies whose margins depend on cramming as many people as possible over the shortest possible distance.  The absence of policies on land use and economic development has led to urban sprawl  and the declining density associated with sprawl has increased travel distances and pushed up the price of public transport.

Public transport in African cities was traditionally developed to serve demand along radial corridors linking to the city centre, but with very few routes that link suburbs without having to go downtown.

Urban sprawl

According to the study published last week, motorcycles thus operate as a personal mode allowing direct connections across these orbital routes instead of multiple transfers and longer times by buses to reach destinations.

So motorbike taxis encourage settlement further away from the core, aggravating urban sprawl and low population density, and making it unlikely that the rapid bus transit system being implemented in cities like Dar es Salaam will gain critical mass in some suburbs.

But the “annoying” bikes also do something else. In cities where it could take as much as five hours to go from one end to another—the equivalent of flying from Dar es Salaam to Dubai – bodabodas and okadas are fuelling the growth of home delivery services for traffic-weary city residents, for anything from cooking gas, grocery shopping, medicines, music, books, clothes and shoes – and in Lagos, even diesel for your household generator, the study further says!

Additional Report by Christine Mungai of Mail & Guardian Africa.