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June 22, 2016

Chinese motorcycles in Kenya: A pass out of poverty?

This article was produced with a reporting grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project by Kenyan journalist Moses Wasamu, and was first published in the The Standard; a longer version appeared on the author's blog.

(Above) Boniface Wabwoba standing next to his motor-bike in one of the streets in Bungoma town in Western Kenya. He is among the many young Kenyans who have found employment in the motor cycle industry (Image: M. Wasamu)

Boniface Wabwoba standing next to his motor-bike in one of the streets in Bungoma town in Western Kenya. He is among the many young Kenyans who have found employment in the motor cycle industry (Image: M. Wasamu).

Chinese motorcycles are now a common feature in every major town and market centre in Kenya. With an unemployment rate of over 50%, the Chinese motorcycles are a source of employment to thousands of young Kenyans who are dropping out of school without a chance of advancing their education and career prospects.

Fifty-year old Boniface Wabwoba walks with a limp. He wasn’t born that way. This was the result of an accident he was involved in way back in 2011. He was in and out of hospital until 2015, when he went back to do ‘ boda boda’ business.

But the limp has not dampened his spirit…

Every day, he leaves his village, Sirare, and rides for 12 kilometres to Bungoma town, where he plies his trade in the town centre.

When the accident happened, he was forced to sell his motor-bike in order to get money to cater for his treatment. All the time he was going from hospital to hospital, the heavy responsibility of providing for the family fell on his wife.

“When I heard about BUCOMOT (Bungoma County Motorbike Sacco Ltd), I sold my cow and joined the SACCO,” he told me in his place of business. This enabled him to access a loan that enabled him to buy his motor-bike.

Boniface is now the proud owner of his own motorbike. He tells me that owning the motor bike has brought a lot of social and financial difference in his life.

He has been able to educate his daughter up to form four, something that he says would have been impossible without his motor-bike. His wife now uses most of her time to tend to their farm and animals, unlike previously when she had to fend for the whole family, and also cater for the medical bills.

While he was employed as a rider, Boniface had to wake up at 4 a.m. every morning, so he could work and earn enough money, which would then be shared between himself and his employer. Today, he leaves home at 7 a.m. and keeps all the money he earns. He is home by 6 p.m. and thus has more time with his family. Before that, he was always on call and could be called out any time of the night, which always posed a security risk.

Currently, a bulk of Kenya’s domestic budget is channeled towards food, shelter, clothing and education, leaving no savings for a rainy day.

Joshua Oigara, CEO of KCB says the challenge for Kenya is to increase the level of savings, which currently stand at about 10% nationally. He says this cannot support economic development. He says this compares badly to other countries like India where the national saving is 30%.

This challenge of a poor savings culture is what small traders like Boniface and other boda boda riders are rising up to.

The ‘boda boda’ riders have started a ‘chama’, through which they save money on a daily basis. ‘Chamas’ are informal societies which are normally used to pool and invest savings by people in Kenya. Christ the King Self Help Group has a membership of 56 and they contribute 200 Kenyan shillings (US$2) each per day.

Boniface is the organizing secretary of the group and helps to coordinate the collection of the money every day. Through this arrangement, he says that he is assured of saving not less than KSh 8,000 (US$7.8) per month. This is besides the earnings he gets from his ‘boda boda’ business.

Boniface remembers painfully the time he was hospitalised and could not work. He says life was difficult, and had it not been for the support of his wife, he would have given up on life.

“I was down and could not do any business. Now I can go out and do business…Even though I have a bad leg, I am able to take care of my family,” he says.

Before joining the ‘boda boda’ business, Boniface worked with Kenya Securicor as a money transporter, before quitting starting the business in 2009.

His colleague Emmanuel Wafula says the ‘boda boda’ business has been a god-send to him because it has helped him to save enough money and buy cows, and invest in land. It has enabled some of his colleagues to build houses and send their children to school.

The self-help group members are not just consuming what they earn; they are also saving for a rainy day. The group has an account at Barclays Bank and their plan is to buy a vehicle and start a transport business, and open a spare-parts shop.

Their chairperson, Pius Kundu tells me that they want to implement these plans by 2017. He has been in the ‘boda boda’ business for the last 21 years. He says the aim of the group is to change the welfare of its members and help them to acquire motor bikes.

Personally, the business has enabled him to educate some of his nephews and nieces, and now they are working.

“My kids are going to school and my wife is also in college, courtesy of the money I get from the business,” he says.

Today, he is still employed as a rider. But, it is his desire to own a motor-bike. He too is a member of BUCOMOT and he is looking forward to the day, soon, when he will have a motor bike of his own.


However, despite the positive talk about the business, the two ‘boda boda’ veterans advise young men who want to join the business to be careful and avoid the pitfalls that have befallen many riders.

“If you want success in this business, avoid pleasurable living – alcohol and promiscuous sex. These two are killing young people,” says Boniface. “Many young people spend a lot of time drinking and chasing after women instead of working.”

He says the business is good if one abides by road safety regulations. Failure to adhere to these leads to injury and even death.

“Your brake lights must be working, the indicator must be there, and bikes must be serviced regularly,” says Boniface.

He challenges the county government to provide 24-hour security so the ‘boda boda’ riders can be able to work for longer hours, thus promoting a 24-hour economy. For now, the by-laws do not allow them to operate beyond 6 p.m.

As happens in many communities, Boniface has brought a young relative into the business, who uses his motor bike when he is busy with some other engagements.

The day I had planned to interview him, one of his cows died and so we postponed our meeting. When such unexpected incidents occur, he asks his relative to operate his motor bike.

Sports gambling

Mark Simiyu Wafula is 23 years old. He was in the business of making bricks before he joined Boniface. His dream is to earn enough money to invest in bricks and build a house.

To accomplish this, he too is a member of the self-help group. He would like to be a member of a SACCO (savings and credit society) and even open a bank account, but for now, he cannot do so. He does not have an identity card to allow him do that.

Boniface Wabwoba (in white shirt), Mark Simiyu Wafula (with reflector jacket), standing within Boniface’s compound. Standing in front is his nephew. Simiyu is one of the young Kenyans who has recently joined the ‘boda boda’ industry (Image: M. Wasamu).

Boniface Wabwoba (in white shirt), Mark Simiyu Wafula (with reflector jacket), standing within Boniface’s compound. Standing in front is his nephew. Simiyu is one of the young Kenyans who has recently joined the ‘boda boda’ industry (Image: M. Wasamu).

He tells me that he applied for the document but when it was brought to him, the image was his but the name on the document was not his. Instead of asking for rectification, he opted to apply for the document afresh.

And this could be the predicament of many young people in the country. Legally, Mark is over age and can be sued by the government for that. Yet, it may be difficult to sue him when it is not his fault that he does not own an identification document.

Such mistakes are locking out many young people from participating in the economy. But he has not given up his dream of making his life better. This he hopes to do through the ‘boda boda’ business.

“The youth are the pillar of the world. They should open their minds and be courageous,” he says. “I want to show them an example by doing something tangible.”

For the time he has been operating as a motor bike rider, he has been able to buy over 20 iron sheets which he intends to use for building a house. This achievement is no mean feat for a young person in the village. His intention is to buy 56 iron sheets before embarking on the project.

“Ninety percent of my age mates are idle, only 10 percent are busy…90 percent are either lost in alcohol, drugs, gambling or in video games,” he tells me. “They have no hope or future if they continue that way.”

He laments that sports gambling is where many people are now spending their time and the little money they get ends up being squandered.

“When they get as little as KSh. 120 (US$1.16), they go to bet. Even old men and women are getting into the habit of sports gambling,” he laments.

He says that many young people are struggling to earn as little as KSh. 200 (US$2) in a day, which they end up gambling with.

Mark and Boniface are blaming local leaders and the government for not empowering young people by helping them find markets for products (like bricks), which they produce locally.

They say the government should invest more in the youth, so as to deal with the problem of unemployment and gambling, which they say is a ticking time bomb.

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