Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT-KENYA: From Petrol Power to Pedal Power

Darren Taylor

NAIROBI, Apr 27 2006 (IPS) - Minibus taxis, referred to as “matatus”, have long been a ubiquitous feature of the Kenyan landscape, providing transport in cities – and linking urban and rural areas.

Operated by drivers who are notorious for their disregard of road safety, matatus can make the lives of other motorists a living hell. African cities are choked with thousands of the taxis – some decrepit, others emitting noxious fumes – each competing for limited space and money.

Matatu owners know taxis are often the sole means of transport for people, many of whom are too impoverished ever to own a car. But, while this scenario is still in effect in many parts of the East African country, a revolution is underway in western Kenya: bicycle taxis are replacing motorised vehicles, their passengers perched on padded seats positioned above the back wheel.

“People still use us to travel far distances, but in the towns we no longer do a good trade. I used to get most of my money from transporting people in town, but now this is no more,” says Samuel Abuka, a self- described “total entrepreneur” who has seen his once-thriving minibus taxi business approach bankruptcy.

“People do not want to go with matatus anymore. They prefer the bicycles because they are cheaper and faster,” he grimaces, dusting off the grey pin-striped suit which envelops his pencil-thin frame while he eats at a restaurant in the heart of Kisumu, a small city on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

It costs a mere 20 shillings (less than half a dollar) to travel across Kisumu on a bicycle; matatu rates are double that. And, bikes are everywhere – the ringing of their bells and the crunch of wheels on dirt the dominant sounds in towns and villages lining the brown lake.

Locals call them “boda bodas”; the name is a play on the English word “border”, explains Charles Omondi, a bicycle taxi owner in Kendu Bay. “Some years ago, the bikes started coming into Kenya from Uganda, at the border. So people started calling them boda bodas,” he laughs.

Bicycle taxis are painted in a kaleidoscope of colours. Many are decorated with ribbons and flags which blow in the breeze as the boda bodas accelerate to their destinations; others are inscribed with religious slogans such as “God is Love”, or with the name of the owner’s favourite English soccer team.

Still others offer logos that are simply weird – like Obbo Oketch’s bicycle taxi in Homa Bay, which he has emblazoned with purple and orange flames, under which is written: “The Israel Vibration Team”. The youngster can’t – or won’t – explain the meaning of this inscription.

Men and women in suits, ready for a day at the office and shouting instructions into cell phones, and school children in crisp uniforms are some of the boda boda owners’ main customers – as are women carrying huge bags of maize, and fishermen transporting their daily catch. No load seems too heavy, or too clumsy, for the adept bicycle riders.

All of this has been enough to convince Davis Onyango that the writing is on the wall.

“I want to sell my matatu and buy lots of boda bodas. That is the way I can survive in the future,” he reasons.

Like many other minibus taxi owners in western Kenya, Onyango has been trying to make a profit by transporting people to the capital, Nairobi, 500 kilometres from Kisumu. But the wear and tear on his vehicle – courtesy of terrible roads – is resulting in “big losses,” he says. “And a matatu can only travel to Nairobi once a day.”

Onyango’s brother, Peter Owidi, has already made the quantum leap backwards, from petrol power to pedal power. His muscles bulge as he weaves his way through the streets of Kisumu on his newly-acquired bicycle. Sweat pours from his bare chest.

“The people, they like using us boda bodas. We get them to work and school much faster, because we do not get stuck in the traffic,” Owidi wheezes.

As he whizzes across a congested intersection, a matatu driver swears loudly. Owidi guffaws in delight.

According to the Fourth National Human Development Report for Kenya, ‘Linking Industrialisation with Human Development’ (issued last year by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP), industrial advances that have lowered bike costs in Kenya prompted the resurgence of bicycles. High rates of joblessness pushed many to consider working in the bicycle taxi sector, as it was – says the agency – “an enterprise opportunity with low entry barriers.”

By 2000, adds the report, there were 5,000 bicycle taxis in Kisumu – with operators earning about three dollars a day for their pains (not bad in a country where about a fifth of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, according to figures issued by the UNDP last year).

The growth in bicycle taxis has also benefited people in rural areas who have been able to reach clinics, schools and the like.

Bicycle usage is not without its problems: there are no tracks for bikes in Kenya, for instance, and many cyclists are killed by speeding vehicles.

But Owidi sees no difficulties – only dreams.

“There is lots of traffic in Nairobi. Maybe I can expand my business there!” he exclaims, his eyes gleaming at the prospect of making a mint in one of Africa’s largest cities.

Jeffrey Otieno, standing alongside his cycle, thinks he’s already made it.

“I never, ever thought I could have my own company,” Otieno says. “I am happy. My children are eating.”

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