Nowadays, citizens throughout the entire African continent face multiple but similar challenges and opportunities that directly relate to the way they move. As urban populations grow, so do their mobility needs. Also, the demand for decent employment opportunities for millions of people who lack appropriate education and skills to easily find a job in the formal economy is as high as it has ever been, if not more so right now.
In response to the ever growing transportation, accessibility and employment demands, citizens in many African cities have dearly embraced the availability of imported motorcycles, on which they rely as both an essential source of employment, as well as the main mode of publicly available transportation service.
However, motorcycle taxis have been characterised by a love-hate relationship with public authorities, with security and road safety challenges triggering bans against these services in several African Cities. Since it is easier for motorcycles to navigate the poor road networks common in Africa and to provide essential services to the population that would otherwise be left unsatisfied, the bans often face resistance from the operators and users of the motorcycle taxis, and rightly so. This makes it imperative for governments to rethink the course of action.
The Ugandan situation
In Uganda, for example, motorcycle taxis, locally known as bodaboda have been banned from the Central Business District of the capital city, Kampala several times. Yet, the bodaboda industry continues to thrive. The main reason behind such resistance is that every economic activity in Uganda is directly or indirectly affected every time the authorities intensify bodaboda restrictions. There's usually no reliable alternative transport means given to the users, nor to the drivers whose only skill is largely to ride motorcycles.
In Uganda, there is a strong market for motorcycles supplied by enterprises dealing in the importation and distribution of two-wheelers, spare parts and accessories. Such companies introduced loan schemes that made motorcycle acquisition easier and accessible to many citizens. Despite the high-interest rates, a lot of motorcycle taxi drivers become motorcycle owners every day and whoever acquires one is sure to find passengers who enable them to pay off the loans.
Easy access to motorcycles and spare parts, continuous increase in the number of businesses that depend on bodaboda for transportation of people and goods, and the existence of a large workforce that is willing, or forced (for a lack of other opportunities), to be employed in the bodaboda industry; all these characteristics make the latter a strong and essential economic sector in Uganda. If properly regulated and supported, the government can ensure that bodabodas contribute to sustainable development by providing safe, accessible, clean, attractive and profitable transportation services, both to users and operators.
Banning bodabodas is not the solution
Many cities across Africa have implemented bans against motorcycle taxis. While the bans may help the cities' authorities to closely control security and road safety, the majority of the citizens, who are the urban poor, get negatively affected.
When you have a wound on the foot, you don't cut off the leg. You find the remedy to heal the wound and continue to walk while the wound heals. Cities where motorcycle taxis were banned, did similar to cutting off the leg to get rid of the wound on the foot. The resultant loss of jobs, limited accessibility, devastation faced by small businesses and the lack of reliable transportation alternatives all come to a high cost to citizens and the economy.
While banning motorcycle taxis seems desirable to some cities, there are others seeking to support motorcycle taxis so that they can help solve unemployment and accessibility issues.
What can governments do?
Banning is extreme coercion. It downplays the United Nations' inclusivity and sustainable development efforts. Enabling motorcycle taxis and sensitising the masses on the proper use of motorcycles should be the next course of action. Building on the already existing efforts for the improvement of motorcycle taxis should be imperative. There are programs that provide road safety and first aid training to operators. Such programs can help in reducing road accidents and mitigating the burden on our healthcare systems.
Motorcycle taxi operators eagerly organise themselves into associations. These can help in effective mobilisation and inclusion in government-led programs and initiatives. Climate and air quality challenges can be mitigated by promoting electric motorcycles through investing in supportive infrastructure like charging stations and regulating the operations of the new business models, thus encouraging the entire industry’s transformation, ranging from the most prominent issue, the electrification of fleets, to also adapting helping services and jobs adapt to the new technology, such as mechanics and businesses dealing with spare-parts.
Private loan schemes to purchase motorcycles already exist. These require their clients to pay some money upfront, and then pay weekly installments for the agreed length of time. To facilitate, and especially accelerate, the transition to e-mobility, governments could support operators by covering the upfront investments and letting the buyers assume the subsequent installments. Such support, for example, could be made conditional to the scrapping of old motorcycles for existing operators.
Battery swapping systems are showing to be a highly reliable business model for electric motorcycle taxis. But its success depends on the rapid growth of swapping stations. Having associations to invest and jointly operate charging infrastructure and services would be helpful but it requires training a lot of people and providing initial technical support as this is still new technology.
Helmet use continues to be a big challenge. Regulations that put emphasis on the use of helmets are welcome but we need to understand helmet standards and enforce them consistently.
The potential of motorcycle taxis
Motorcycle taxis keep increasing in number despite the security and road safety challenges. The reason behind the continuous increase is the efficiency and convenience provided by motorcycles in areas that lack proper road infrastructure, and the interdependence between businesses and communities which upholds the demand for these services.
Motorcycle taxis enhance access to goods and services, employ large numbers of people - not only drivers but also importers, distributors and retailers of motorcycles and spare parts, mechanics and many others.
The large numbers of operators can contribute greatly to the fight against climate change if the efforts for adoption of e-mobility prioritise motorcycle taxi operators.
The benefits of motorcycle taxis outweigh the downsides. With consistent enforcement and good governance, the available measures can help mitigate the impact of the downsides. So everyone can be part and parcel of sustainable development.