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Motorbike taxi drivers aim to be Kenya's next entrepreneurs

22 July 2015, 21:19

Nairobi - When US President Barack Obama comes to Nairobi this weekend to open an international business conference, motorbike taxi driver Evans Makori will watch him drive by, hoping his dreams come true.

The 35-year-old father of two school-age boys is a fan of new motorbike venture Kibo, which aims to build bikes fit for Kenya's roads and turn their drivers into small business owners.

While in Nairobi, Obama is due to address the Global Entrepreneurship Summit where the focus will be on smart, educated young people with techy dreams.

But manufacturing and the proletarian aspirations of motorbike taxi drivers are as important if Kenya is to grasp its potential.

Kenya's motorbike taxis, popular but dangerous, are as likely to land you in the casualty department as get you to a meeting on time.

Also read: Obama tour a boost for ailing hotel industry

Known as boda-bodas, they're cheaply made, poorly maintained and badly driven.

Kibo hopes to change all that, turning out sturdy bikes in Kenya and providing maintenance, road safety and business training as well as micro-finance loans.

"Motorcycle taxis transport people and goods at an affordable price, creating mobility at the bottom of the pyramid," said Huib van de Grijspaarde, the 40-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, development economist and motorbike enthusiast behind Kibo Africa.

For him the project is about easing the flow of people and goods and releasing the entrepreneurial spirit by turning renter-riders into owners.

Bad roads, heavy loads

As in many other African countries, motorbikes in Kenya are workhorses not hobbies.

It's not unusual to see a generic 125cc Chinese bike bouncing along a potholed road carrying two adult passengers plus the driver, or loaded with piles of 25 kilo sacks. Or the bike may be so laden with chickens that it looks like a motorised hen, or maybe it's racing in the wrong direction along a triple-lane motorway.

Kibo's 150cc motorcycle is built for bad roads and heavy loads: it is long and tall with a strong tubular exoskeleton, heavy-duty suspension and off-road tyres. Riders who join the programme will also be equipped with helmets, padded jackets and reflective vests.

Makori rides a cheap, imported 125cc Skygo bike from his usual waiting area at Nairobi's Nyayo Stadium.

He pays 400 shillings (3.60 euros) a day to rent the bike and earns a profit of around 600 shillings (5.40 euros) a day, after fuel. He has a couple of dozen regular clients as well as daily passing trade.

Makori is taken with the Kibo bike's design -- "I dream of that motorcycle every day" -- and its strength. "The road here in Kenya is not good, the infrastructure is not friendly, but the Kibo is somehow durable," he said.

But it is the promise of ownership, and of being his own boss, that is most attractive. "I didn't look at the money, I looked at that motorcycle as a bridge that can take me from one place to another," said Makori.

It's ambition like Makori's that attracted Grijspaarde to Kenya rather than, for instance, Ghana where he was "discouraged by the lack of entrepreneurship and drive".

"The Kenyan mindset was an important element," he said, alongside the country's economic growth and expanding but fragmented motorcycle market.

Built for, not in, Africa

Kibo is built for Africa, but not yet in Africa.

User groups of riders, owners, passengers and mechanics were convened in 2011 to work out what was wrong with currently available bikes. The bike was designed in Holland, going through eight iterations before arriving at the K150, which will be available later this year.

Currently the bike's 256 parts are manufactured abroad in China, Europe and Taiwan, shipped to Kenya and assembled in 50 steps in the Kibo factory, in the industrial sprawl connecting downtown Nairobi to the city's airport. The directions to get there include turning right at piles of broken glass.

Kibo is aiming to produce 10,000 bikes a year by 2019. "To scale up production, we have to move manufacturing to Kenya," said Henk Veldman, managing director of Kibo Africa.

The bike is expensive, costing around 300,000 shillings (2,700 euros, $2,950) and paid off over two years. The amount is similar to what Makori pays in rental fees over the same period. And at the end the rider owns the bike and all the profit that follows.

The most popular imported bikes cost around 110,000 shillings (1,000 euros) but are barely useable after two years of being overloaded and driven on Kenya's awful roads. The Kibo is designed to run for much longer with maintenance a core part of the plan and, as important, business training.

"You're an entrepreneur now with money coming in and out," said Veldman, "You need to think about customer relations."

For boda-boda passengers the experience is often hair-raising and rarely pleasant, especially for women.

Male drivers with often poor personal hygiene have a habit of squeezing the brake hard when a female passenger is on board, causing her to lurch forwards and press her body, unwillingly, against him. This was one of the main gripes among female passengers in the user groups.

Safety is also built into the bike, from the strong external frame to the fuel tank's unusually high position designed to discourage the placing of packages, or child passengers, on top.

"It's about saving lives, improving road safety and enabling the building of a business through ownership of a good asset," said Grijspaarde.



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