Bettering Bargaining Power:

Ugandan Women May Turnout To Be The Best Motorcycle Riders

Written by: Rhonet Atwiine

It is dawn in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala. Roscovia Akullo has been up, preparing to leave for work.

As she finishes her preparations, Akullo puts on two winter-like jackets and a helmet.

Outside, a motorcycle is parked. She explains that this is her everyday tool for work. Akullo is a female motorcycle taxi rider, known locally as boda boda.

“I wake up at 5:00 a.m. every day to find early bird customers who travel for work. I ensure that by 6:00 a.m. I am already on the road. Customers at that time pay good money, between 5,000 to 10,000 shillings depending on the distance,” Akullo shares as she starts her bike.

Being a female boda boda rider in Kampala, or even Uganda at large, requires courage for any woman, as it is a male-dominated industry.

However, this is not the case for Akullo. She decided to break the barriers and join the sector, driven by the need for self-employment and financial independence.

“As a mother of three, I needed money to run our home because my husband’s income wasn’t enough for all of us. When I looked around, I did not see any other business that could give me the daily income I needed besides the boda boda,” she recalls.

Like many women, Akullo had been previously employed. However, the demands of traditional employment pushed her into this business.

Akullo operates at Nakasero stage, one of the female boda boda hubs in the city center. Her day is always busy with deliveries and transporting passengers through the four million people city. 

“This job is not only for men.  On a good day, I make 30,000 UGX, and in a good month, I can earn 900,000 UGX,” she says as she prepares a package for delivery.

Roscovia Akullo, one of the boda boda riders in Uganda’s capital Kampala.

The Boda Boda transport is the signature of all cities in East Africa. In Kampala, authorities say there are over 150,000 registered Boda-Bodas, employing largely young men.

Bikes are preferred by passengers as highly convenient, and easier navigate the problematic traffic gridlock.

Across the region, there are an estimated three million bikes. However, women’s participation in the seemingly largest transport sector has been so low.

Vivian Nabisere, the Community Engagement, Learning, and Development Lead at SafeBoda, a motorcycle taxi hauling start-up in the country shares that there is hope for women to dominate the industry if key stakeholders in the nation’s transport sector take part and promote inclusion.

“We want women to join SafeBoda so that we can increase the number of female riders. This way, customers could have the option to choose a female rider on our mobile application. Parents, in particular, would appreciate it if a woman could drive their child to school—they feel safer,” she opines.

Vivian Nabisere, the Community Engagement, Learning, and Development Lead at SafeBoda. 

Women are in Charge

While bridging the gender gap in the industry takes time, training programs are emerging as the new model through which women are striving to enter the predominantly male-dominated boda boda business.

The idea is being pioneered by Women Rising for Africa, a non-profit organization and social enterprise that aims to change economic prospects for women through safe motorcycle riding.

It is training women as active participants in the sector because of the belief that “many women rely on motorcycles to facilitate their daily commutes, whether to markets, workplaces, or other destinations, often as a means of livelihood”. 

“Seven years ago, I came to Uganda as a tourist, but during my time here, I noticed the transportation safety challenges women encountered. Being proficient in motorcycle riding myself, I chose to impart my skills to them, aiming to dismantle barriers within the boda boda industry and for women,” says Liliane Felix, the proprietor and leader at Women Rising Africa.  

The organization mobilizes women from diverse backgrounds and communities, with emphasis on low-resource city communities, and works with other transport stakeholders to facilitate the training. 

This full-time three-week training program follows a structured process.

First off, it’s the selection of candidates from diverse backgrounds, and conducting interviews to assess their interest in boda boda riding.

After the selection, riders are enrolled in rigorous training in defensive riding, road safety, self-defense, financial literacy, and first aid classes.

Felix notes that this is meant to prepare them for the real world of the boda boda rider, as it requires resilience.

“We bring trainers from various sectors such as healthcare, transportation, and banking to ensure our women receive comprehensive education. They must know how to protect themselves in case of an attack, manage their finances, plan for their families, and safeguard both their own and their passengers’ lives in case of an accident,” she says.

Liliane Felix, a  the founder of Women on Wheels.

Irene Nantongo, a mother of one, is currently undergoing training. She shares that her motivation for joining the boda boda business is the desire to become an independent woman capable of sustaining herself and her family.

“So far, I know how to ride safely on all kinds of roads and read and interpret road signs. But most importantly, I’ve learned about family planning. I won’t have another unplanned child after this training,” she says, referring to other services like Reproductive Health Rights that have been included in the training program for the women.

The training will help her qualify for a soft loan to acquire a bike. The organization will then support her in obtaining a driving license and then link her to the popular digital hailing company Safe Boda for work.  

Safe Boda’s Nabisere explains that they integrate women into the system, providing them access to passengers and opportunities to deliver goods for online businesses like Jumia, Glovo, and many other delivery companies.

“People don’t realize that the boda boda industry is very lucrative. These women are financially independent because they get paid every time they make a delivery or transport a passenger. Each woman earns at least 1.5 million UGX (400 USD) monthly. Some of them are even able to afford school fees for their children using their earnings from boda boda work,” she explains.

Additionally, Nabisere elaborates that there is a higher level of trust placed in women when it comes to handling products compared to men.

She notes that women tend to be more cautious, ensuring items are handled with care and responsibility.

“We have received positive feedback from SafeBoda customers, saying their items were delivered in good condition. Moreover, having more women on the road increases overall safety, as some male riders have been reported for theft, especially targeting women traveling at night,” Nabisere explains.

Women riders undergo a safety training drill to prepare for accidents and emergence.  

Women Rising Africa opened its doors to women in  2022. Today, it has trained 90 female riders across six training sessions in two regions of the country: Central and East. These riders are currently stationed at various boda boda points in the downtown areas of the city.

However, Felix notes that the journey to empowering women to join this male-dominated sector is fraught with challenges. 

Many families, particularly husbands, believe this is not a suitable job for their wives. Additionally, the prospect of taking out loans deters many women.

“Coming from humble backgrounds, they see a loan as a daunting commitment. We had to educate them on manageable repayment methods, and now it is no longer an issue.”

Akullo also mentions that some customers, especially men, are hesitant to let her drive them to their destination, fearing that she may cause an accident because they believe she isn’t as strong or skilled as the men in the business.

“Some customers underestimate me when they see me on stage. They think I will cause an accident or we will fall. Someone might initially be interested in taking the boda, but once they realize I’m a woman, they leave and choose a male rider,” she explains.

She adds that when the road is busy, some male riders drive recklessly, and sometimes customers refuse to pay after reaching their destination.

Despite these challenges, Akullo remains hopeful. Her ability to provide for her family and the changing attitudes within her household about the boda boda business are significant achievements.

“I am really happy to own a bike. Every woman should join me. I believe we can do this and change how we are perceived in our society,” Akullo concludes.