SINCE 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, dala-dala 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 do so.
The growth rate of cities like Dar es Salaam, Douala and Lagos has been 6% 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%, at which rates 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 boda boda.
Mind-blowing boda boda numbers
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 boda bodas, says this paper by the Sub Saharan Africa Transport Policy Program (SSATP), published by the World Bank. One unverified estimate put it at an astonishing 300,000 boda bodas 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 rich in Douala make twice as many trips by motorbike as do the poor, and data from three African cities shows that a ride by motorbike 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 gridlocked 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 or minibuses.
Even more importantly, the motorcycle taxi is shaping the very structure of African city economies, settlement patterns, and expectations of urban residents.
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.
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 Nairobi to Lagos – boda bodas 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!
As one Lagos resident put it, “Your diesel okada man is the first bill you settle in the month, or else you will have no light.”
Jumia and Konga soar
The most prominent example is Nigeria’s e-commerce powerhouses Jumia and Konga; Jumia reportedly has a fleet of 800 motorbikes and small vans to do deliveries all over Nigeria.
Even Ebola has a silver lining here – this story by The Economist says that in September, when Lagos was at the tail end of its small outbreak of the deadly disease, the fear of crowds and public places had kept many shoppers in, so much so that Jumia reported a tripling of orders since the first Nigerian death from Ebola was reported in July.
Sanitation products such as handwash and bleach were the biggest orders, toppling mobile phones as the bestselling product, and other retailers such as Konga and Kaymu also report a spike in the sales of cleaning products.
So even though drivers in African cities complain about having to share the road with the motorbikes’ irritating bobbing and weaving, and flagrant disregard for traffic rules, the same motorist has no qualms calling up his delivery man in the evening when the gas runs out – and he wants it delivered now.
*Other names for motorcycle taxis around the world:
Habal-habal or skylab: Philippines
Motoesai rap chang: Thailand
Xe om: Vietnam