50-odd years ago, Ali Mayende’s innovation in the border town of Busia sparked a revolution that has become the lifeblood of East African public transportation.
Ali Mayende has passed on. In the early 1970s or late 1960s, he tied a white handkerchief to his bicycle handlebars and began ferrying passengers from Busia, a small town on the edges of Eastern Uganda to the border. Half a century later, there are around five million boda bodas across East Africa, where they have in turn been labelled saviours, predators, death traps and the fastest way to get anywhere. Yet almost no one seems to know the man who started it all.
Ali Mayende Omukeshwe was from Shamutumba, West Busia district. He first used his bicycle to smuggle tobacco across the Ugandan-Kenyan border. In one of the only interviews known to have been conducted before his death, Mzee Ali said that he purchased his first bicycle by selling a cow he had inherited. Seeing Kenyans crossing the border constantly, he decided to start transporting passengers and their luggage across the short No Man’s Land between Busia town and the border post.
Other bicycle owners, who had been moving agricultural goods and smuggling coffee and tobacco, joined in. Bicycle riders would solicit passengers by calling out “Border! Border!” and the hard English Rs would melt away on Samia and Bagisu tongues, leaving us with what we have today – boda bodas.
It wasn’t long before middle-class Ugandans saw buying and renting out – or leasing to sell – bicycles to boda boda riders as a means of extra income. For bagagga – wealthy Ugandans, it is a sidehustle that can act as yet another imperfect flotation device in the stormy Ugandan economy. It also didn’t take long for politicians to see that not only could they enrich themselves through this, but that boda bodas were highly visible and mobile, and that they could move constituents both physically and metaphorically to vote for them.
After the destruction of the 1970s and 80s wars, boda bodas were still mostly confined to Busia and the border areas. In 1986, a visiting New Vision journalist marvelled at the transformation of Busia into a “bicycle town”, and described the system of “border borders.” Within a few years bicycle-taxis were booming across the country as peace arrived in many parts, and there were boda boda associations in most major towns in Uganda. When Bulaimu Muwanga Kibirige (known popularly as BMK) imported used Japanese motorcycles in 1994 and distributed them to boda boda riders, they took off like wildfire. Thus transforming the boda boda industry into what we know today, a mass of motorised cycles that play a key role in Ugandas economic, political and social life.
Boda riders are incredibly effective political campaigners, as they are highly visible, mobile, and chat with around a dozen residents a day. Since the late 1990s, a convoy of boda bodas has become an unspoken requirement for campaigning politicians in Uganda. Wearing the candidates colors – yellow for NRM, blue for long-standing opposition FDC, red for the upstarts NUP – while honking horns and performing wheelies, boda bodas make a political rally unmissable.
Boda bodas have come to play every imaginable role in Ugandan society: beyond a ride to work, they are emergency services, security guards, getaway drivers, government spies, school buses, delivery couriers. They move fast, can use nearly any path imaginable, and are highly visible – they represent the entrepreneurial, rule-breaking spirit of Uganda and everything one can do with it.
Their service is irreplaceable and their arrival transformed the country. In rural areas, where residents used to have to wait hours for a minibus or shared car, a couple of motorcycles can be found in every village. Combined with a cellphone, a boda boda is never farther than fifteen minutes away, and in a town or city there is usually one just outside the door.
Today, firms like Watu, Tugende, and Mogo have arrived to offer quick, formalised financing for motorcycles, displacing the middle-class entrepreneurs and politically connected operators that long dominated the supply chain. While they position themselves as “innovators”, in truth they have simply sped up the process for those with no connections to get loans. While riders have flocked to this new class of financiers for their quick turnaround time, the new normal sees interest payments now flow to primarily European and American shareholders, who drape themselves in developmental rhetoric to governments and in venture capital script to their backers.
At the same time, ride-hailing apps in the mould of SafeBoda, and later on Uber and Bolt arrived promising to improve safety and remove negotiations. But the lack of controls over market entry and intense competition has made ordering a boda online slower than simply stepping out of the front door. It’s also difficult to keep helmets on passengers’ heads when the president himself declared them unnecessary and privately told companies it was a waste of time.
Half a century of getting to places, madly. All of this started with Mzee Ali and his contemporaries, and eventually spread to South Sudan – where Ugandans touched off an industry until they were chased out in 2013 at the onset of the civil war there – and to Kenya and Tanzania where they are now the ubiquitous. Their stories, Mzee Ali’s story, should be known. As Kenda Mutongi rightly pointed out with matatus, boda bodas are an indigenous innovation that developed completely apart from either the national development-industrial complex or the appropriate-technology business of globalisation that recently discovered bodas as a bottom-of-the-pyramid lifeblood.
We know Henry Ford for revolutionising automotive assembly lines and delivering motorised transport into the hands of the masses. Some know BMK, who hastened the transition from bicycle to motorcycle boda boda. We should also know Ali Mayende, who, by yelling “border! border!” changed the transport landscape for an entire region.
Tom Courtright is a mobility and e-mobility consultant who grew up in Tanzania and is based between there and Uganda. He focuses on boda bodas and writes over at Lubyanza with Geofrey Ndhogezi.