Business is booming for Kenya's boda-boda operators

A boda-boda carries a passenger in the Kenyan border city of Busia. (Daniel Sitole)

The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented loss of life as well as economic devastation in the billions of dollars globally. But the crisis has come as a blessing to many bicycle taxi operators in East Africa (EA).

Bicycle taxis, locally known as boda-boda, are a popular mode of transport in EA cities.

Boda-boda drivers say that restrictions on many other forms of transport, combined with the closure of international borders in the region, has boosted their businesses.

“Times of human despair are our dollars mining seasons, especially for us operating near international borders,” says Paul Wanyama, 43, a boda-boda driver based in Busia, near the Kenya-Uganda border. “Our services are in high demand when everything else fails, like now. No movements of persons by air, water or roads, and borders are closed. Police are on 24-hour surveillance on both sides of the borders.”

Boda-boda drivers use their knowledge of the terrain to make trips that would otherwise be impossible during the crisis. They are able to carry goods and passengers across borders by making use of clandestine routes, sometimes through remote villages to ensure their clients get to their destinations safely. The bicycle taxis are also more flexible in areas where roads are dilapidated, and they make less noise than cars, allowing them to escape the notice of authorities.

Before Covid-19, citizens of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania enjoyed 24-hour unrestricted cross-border movements and trade. Traders did not need passports or visas, just national identification cards. The pandemic brought all of that to a sudden halt. No cross-border movements or trade were allowed, with the exception of cargo trucks carrying essential commodities.

The Kenyan government put in place additional restrictions including a 7pm to 5am curfew in some cities, including Nairobi and Mombasa. The measures are intended to curb the spread of Covid-19. 

John Onyango, 50, a boda-boda operator in Busia, says he and others secretly help traders who own shops in Uganda or Kenya to cross the border every morning and pick them up again in the evening, evading Kenyan and Ugandan police border patrols.

“We are natives here and know the terrain better than any police officer. The police use cars and patrol in groups but for us, it is a rider and the passenger,” Onyango says. “Our services are excellent and trusted in the region, because we do not betray our clients. We do not care if a client is a drug trafficker, murderer or a high priest. Our mission is offering transport services.”

Boda-boda fares vary depending on the time of day, distance, location, and the passenger’s circumstances. A typical ride starts at about $0.50 USD, for a five-kilometre trip. The fare can go as high as $10 in extreme cases.

“A criminal escaping, people transporting contraband goods or drugs pays more than an ordinary passenger,” says Antony Barasa, 35, a boda-boda operator in Malaba, Kenya. “But sometimes we help those wanting our services to escape inhuman conditions, political or religious prosecutions, or going for medications.”

He adds that many refugees in the region use boda-bodas at low or no charges, to flee their home countries.

Patrick Otieno, 80, is now retired after 40 years as a boda-boda driver in Kenya and Uganda. He says the Covid-19 pandemic is the third super boom in the history of the local boda-boda economy, since they first became popular as a public transport option in the 1960s.

Boda-boda of both the motorcycle and bicycle varieties. (Daniel Sitole)

The first boom came during a rise in the illegal smuggling of coffee beans from Uganda to Kenya in the mid-1970s, concentrated around the Chepkube Market in Bungoma, Kenya. The local coffee industry had taken off following a cold snap in Brazil that destroyed coffee plantations, causing a global shortage. Later US President Jimmy Carter imposed a ban on the importation of Ugandan coffee, due to human rights violations by Idi Amin, which prompted black market coffee to flourish.

“We transported bags of coffee across the Kenya-Uganda border through the Chepkube village. Our job began at 8pm to 4am every day until 1978,” says Otieno.

Otieno says he earned a lot of money during that period, allowing him to marry two wives and to build two semi-permanent houses. He also opened a grocery shop in his Busia home.

The second boom started in 1978, during the Tanzania-Uganda war that led to the overthrow of Idi Amin.

“[Government] ministers, army generals and their families, and thousands of civilians fled into Kenya using boda-boda to cross the border. I carried hundreds of them, and some had bags of cash in Kenya shillings, sterling pounds and US dollars,” says Otieno.  

It was during this time that bicycle taxis were named boda-boda, because the fleeing Ugandans did not understand the Kiswahili language. The only way to communicate with the drivers was shouting “border-border,” meaning take us to the border.

The boda-boda economy has since evolved. The majority of operators moved to Chinese motorcycles, but the original bicycles continue in many cities and border crossing points. The sector, motorcycles and bicycles put together, employs millions of people across East Africa.

Despite the crucial role the drivers play in the mobility of persons and goods, they are also blamed for rising crime and road collisions in Kenya.

According to a 2019 National Crime Research Centre report, boda-boda involvement in murder cases account for 37.5% of all homicides, robbery with violence 52.9%, assault 67%, and causing death by dangerous riding 79.5%.  

“Some riders work with criminals and some do participate in crimes,” says Joseph Mutebi, a transportation security trainer and consultant. “That is why more than half of criminals are reported to have escaped using boda-boda. They are violent to other road users, do not observe traffic rules and dangerously use any open space, including pavements.”

The national chairman of the Boda-boda Association of Kenya, Kevin Mubadi, insists his 1.2 million members are not involved in crime but agrees that boda-boda in general are helping people to make trips despite pandemic-related restrictions.

“This is true that some riders are smuggling people across the locked areas and as an organisation, we have given them a stern warning and advised the government to deal with such individuals seriously,” Mubadi said in an emailed statement. “People in Kenya are allowed to ride their bicycles and motorcycles. Criminals buy them for the purposes of committing crimes, and their actions are attributed to genuine boda-boda riders.”

Daniel Sitole is a Kenyan journalist and a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.