On Kampala streets jammed with boda bodas, orange vests and helmets help SafeBoda's drivers (and passengers) stand out. Isaac Kasamani

SafeBoda's backers want to streamline Kampala's motorcycle taxi industry and foster a culture of road safety.

KAMPALA, Uganda — Motorcycle taxis rule the road in this capital city, where estimates of the number of “boda bodas” ferrying passengers around town range from 65,000 to the hundreds of thousands. That’s at least five times more bodas than New York has yellow cabs.

They’re also notoriously unsafe. Between the potholed roads and zig-zagging drivers, the sight of a boda crash is a regular occurrence. On a typical day, the Mulago National Referral hospital in Kampala sees 20 admissions related to boda accidents.

So it was perhaps inevitable that when an Uber-like ridesharing service arrived in Kampala, it would combine two things: bodas and safety. And that’s exactly what happened with the launch of a local startup called SafeBoda.

Started on a pilot basis about a month ago, SafeBoda lets anyone with a smartphone choose a motorcyclist that has been trained in defensive driving, first aid, traffic rules, and motorcycle maintenance. The drivers wear bright orange helmets and vests, and always carry a helmet for passenger use. In the coming months, customers will be able to rate their trip experience through the app. The system will crowdsource driver ratings, allowing customers to reward those who drive safely, as with Uber and other taxi apps.

SafeBoda’s backers hope the service will do more than just connect passengers with drivers. They also hope it will foster a culture of traffic safety. That’s important in a city where only 30 percent of boda drivers and less than one percent of their passengers wear helmets. Co-founder Ricky Rapa says his drivers are learning that safety pays—literally—as they rack up more fares from regular customers who value a safe ride.

“We’re trying to wake boda drivers up,” Rapa says, “and make them realize they can be successful in this business.”

Flooding the streets

Motorcycle safety has become a big issue in cities across Africa, where two-wheel taxis are known in various parts as “okada,” “moto-taxis,” or  “bendskins.” Their use is growing at staggering rates as urban populations swell and incomes rise.

Another reason for the boda explosion is a lack of transit alternatives. According to a 2011 study by the Sub-Saharan Africa Transport Policy Program, the collapse of formal urban bus networks in Kampala, Lagos (Nigeria), and Douala (Cameroon) left a void that motorcycle taxis have helped to fill.

Estimates of the number of boda bodas in Kampala range from 65,000 into the hundreds of thousands.  (Isaac Kasamani)

In Kampala, growing traffic congestion also plays a role. While affluent people drive cars here, bodas are prized by almost everyone else for their ability to snake through traffic and get from point A to B quickly and affordably. Across Uganda, the number of motorbikes grew by 170 percent from 2005 to 2009.

Deaths and roadway injuries are also shooting up. According to a recent Uganda police crime and traffic safety report, the number of motorcyclists who died on Ugandan roads increased between 2012 and 2013, growing from 571 to 641. Less serious accidents happen all the time. As a journalist, I depend on bodas to get around Kampala and once had two minor accidents in just two weeks' time.

While the law says drivers must wear a helmet, carry a spare for passengers, and sport a bright safety vest, those rules are generally not enforced. Helmets start at about 20,000 shillings or $7.20 U.S.—more than a day’s pay for many Kampalans.

“If you get an accident you’ll be bedridden. All of sudden you lose,” says Arnold Semanda, a 24-year old boda driver in Kampala. “You have to be careful. Our roads are in a quagmire state.”

Driver’s ed

While SafeBoda offers an answer for people who can afford smartphones, broader efforts are underway here to encourage motorcycle safety. The biggest is known as the Uganda Helmet Vaccine Initiative, an offshoot of a global effort by the Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation.

UHVI hopes to train 2,000 boda drivers in road safety, through a series of workshops that commenced in Kampala earlier this month and will run until February. At one of these workshops held recently in the Kampala suburb of Makindye, about 100 drivers received instruction on crashes and crash avoidance, proper helmet use, helmet quality, bike maintenance, defensive riding, and traffic laws and regulations.

Arnold Semanda, 24, attended a recent safe-driving seminar with the Uganda Helmet Vaccine Initiative. Attendees get a helmet, two meals, and a transportation stipend. (Amy Fallon)

Upon completion of the one-day seminar, each participant received a free shiny helmet covered with the words “obulamu bugagga!” (“your life is your treasure!”). As an added incentive, attendees were given breakfast, lunch, and a transport allowance of 10,000 shillings (about $3.60 U.S.).

Rachel Alinda, project assistant at UHVI, says low rates of helmet use illustrate a lax attitude towards road safety in Uganda. Alinda says the mentality with helmets is, “The traffic guy’s across the street from me, let me put it on. And when he’s away from me, I take it off.”

As Alinda sees it, UHVI can’t guarantee that all participants of its seminars will comply with the road laws. “But at least these ones seem to be taking something away,” she says, “and they’re saying they’re actually going to start doing things the way they’re supposed to be doing.”

UHVI is currently receiving funding from CrossRoads, a Ugandan road-building initiative, which is in turn supported by the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Union. The group is hoping it can get more grants to train more drivers.   

In Uganda, UHVI also has been broadcasting radio ads and erecting billboards on the “life-saving importance” of motorcyclists wearing helmets. The AIP Foundation also operates in Cambodia, China, Tanzania, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Tanzania, they’re working with local government partners to establish the first not-for-profit helmet factory.

Paddy Munyigwa, 30, a boda driver and father of four, says the UHVI seminar was valuable. He showed me a scar on his left leg, which he broke in 2001 after a collision with a car. It left him out of work for six months. “Now I’m learning good driving,” Munyigwa says.

‘You need your head’

Ricky Rapa of SafeBoda is himself a motorcycle taxi driver. Now 27, he spent four years working his way up to being chairman of his “stage”—that’s the stand where drivers wait for passengers. He also started a business running popular boda tours of the capital.

It was a client on one of those tours who told Rapa about a friend working in tech who could help him build the SafeBoda platform. Rapa developed the app with social entrepreneurs Maxime Dieudonne, 30, Alastair Sussock, 29, and the Rwanda-based mobile tech company HeHe Labs.

SafeBoda co-founder Ricky Rapa (right) hopes the effort will help change Kampalans’ attitudes about traffic safety. (Isaac Kasamani)

Now, as part of a pilot project, 25 SafeBoda drivers are scattered around the Bukoto, Kisimenti, and Garden City areas of central Kampala. They proudly wear their standout orange vests, with the company’s hotline number written on the back. SafeBoda does not charge any more than a typical fare for Kampala, which generally costs between 5,000 and 10,000 shillings (about $1.80 to $3.60 U.S.).

Although the project is in its early days, more than 100 drivers are on a list waiting to begin working with SafeBoda. Those already on the road with the company are impressed.

Stephen Byaruhanga, 25, says he previously earned about 20,000 shillings ($7.20) a day as a boda driver, but is now taking home about 40,000 ($14.40). His customer base has increased from 10 to 15 regular passengers.

“Customers are giving us thanks,” says Byaruhanga. “They know you’re not going to thieve and you’re driving carefully.”

All SafeBoda drivers sign a code of conduct agreeing to be punctual, have sufficient fuel, and maintain their bikes properly. Driving on footpaths or with more than one passenger, are no-nos.

Part of creating a safety culture at SafeBoda is to have the drivers enforce this code among themselves. Anyone accused of breaking the code goes before a group of other drivers. “It’s the idea of the community norm, the social pressure,” says Sussock.

Another culture shift is needed with passengers. A lot of passengers, especially women, require convincing to wear the orange helmet, explains Rapa. SafeBoda drivers have been handing out flyers to women impressing upon them the idea that helmets are “life-saving.” They also are experimenting with giving away free hairnets, which can be worn underneath the helmet. This is aimed at hygiene-conscious customers who don’t like the idea of wearing a helmet that’s recently been on someone else’s head.  

“Some (Ugandan) ladies have very nice looking hair so they don’t want to mess it up with our helmet,” Rapa says. “We want to say, ‘Your hair is as expensive as your head, because you need your head so that you can have the hair.’ You can wear a helmet and look nice.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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