old blog, current topic – an educated american and my man from tororo think alike on bodas

Jo Buwembo Post

Jo put this post up onto his Facebook page last night and my first response (and it’s rare that I respond to Facebook posts) was to copy the link to this article I wrote in September 2013 and paste it in.

But the article was NOT online!

Potentially long story cut short, here it is online:


My dislike for boda-bodas and their operators should be common knowledge by now, but I am learning to live with them and mourn people who die falling off them.

Now there is one specific aspect of the boda-boda business that presents an irony which I implore our economists and managers of this society to spend energies on.

A couple of months ago, at a gathering of mobile phone enthusiasts we call ‘Mobile Monday’, I met Michael Wilkerson, a young American fellow running a company called Tugende, whose primary focus is financing for boda-boda operators to own their own motor bikes.

I was surprised to find this Stanford- and Oxford-educated American had relocated to Uganda to apply himself to this issue.

“Imagine if the laptop you did all your work on…,” he said, to the group of mostly IT, nerdy types, “…if that laptop were owned by somebody else. Imagine if at the end of every day you had to pay that person some money as rent? Suppose at any time that person could take your laptop away and leave you with no income for the day or week?”

That is the reality for many boda-boda owners, and which Wilkerson’s company seeks to change through a funding programme that transfers ownership of the wretched mopeds to those irritating road-users.

It’s a noble initiative.

But I also know a guy called Patrick Omare whose closest encounter with Stanford University education has been leaning against Andrew Mwenda’s vehicle for a photograph when it’s occasionally parked outside The Independent offices. This Patrick is an entertaining fellow when observed at work because he earnestly indulges in occupational buffoonery that I classify under a file titled, “Office Clowns”.

But this Patrick has bought up a couple of pieces of land in his Eastern Ugandan village and near Kampala City itself by way of his version of the Tugende concept.

It started with him asking his employer for a loan to buy land. His employer, not clear on the collateral Patrick presented, instead bought a boda-boda and put it under Patrick’s management. He explained that Patrick would get a rider, have the fellow operate the machine and pay back 50% of profits or a minimum amount of money every single day till the original cost was paid back, plus an extra two months, and the rider could take the machine as his very own.

All money would be put into a second boda-boda, and so on and so forth.

The concept eventually sunk in, and Patrick bought his piece of land a year and a half later, and now runs a fleet of boda-bodas. He isn’t stinking rich by ordinary standards, and has had a couple of the things stolen from him, but he is doing alright.

So, at this point, an American with the world’s best education and the humbly-schooled Patrick from Eastern Uganda have figured this out and are operating more-or-less at par.

Which is why I’m seeking an economist to figure out why this can’t be replicated for other stuff that would make more sense for us as a country overall and cause less death and disorder. Why, for instance, aren’t we buying our cars in this manner the way the rest of the world does, which enables them to afford brand new cars and provides the capital to invest in manufacturing or assembly? Why can’t the Pioneer or UTODA buses be funded in this way so that our transport system gets cleaned up?

More importantly, can’t the same philosophy be used for tractor purchases countrywide to change the lives of millions of farmers…and the country? What about somebody funding agricultural pre-processing plants in every district using this very same formula?

What’s the missing element? Or, what’s that magic element in boda-bodas that draws in the Stanford and Oxford educated American and my man from Eastern Uganda?

Over to the economists and managers of society.


that Boda-Boda Mentality you and I can’t seem to get rid of

Now that the Pioneer Bus Service is back on the roads of Kampala City, we could hope that a step is being taken in the direction of ridding Uganda of the business of boda-boda as a mode of transport, but that would be displaying naivety.
It has taken me a while but I am now finally resigned to the reality that the boda-boda will be part of our lives here for a long time to come, because of our general ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’.
You see, even reading this there will be some people arguing that boda-bodas are extremely necessary because without them we would be “incapable” of getting around – especially because of the manner in which our roads and residential areas are laid out. Plus, the arguments will go, if we got rid of boda-bodas there would be an “employment crisis” in this country!#BodaBodasBeLike - 1
I call that the ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’ because it is a mindset that is characteristic of boda-boda operations themselves.
The reasons boda-bodas took over in the first place were: 1. the public transportation system of taxis was disorganised, uncomfortable and so haphazard that you never knew how long a trip would take you if you boarded a taxi to anywhere, since they would jerk to a stop every two seconds or so; 2. Most of our residences are embedded in places that have awkward access roads that make the walk from the house to the nearest ’stage’ uncomfortable, ungainly and downright risky; 3. It’s really the fastest way to get from one point to another without #BodaBodasBeLike - 2suffering a road rage heart attack due to impatient, mentally disorganised drivers and a traffic management system seemingly managed by people with large amounts of shares in the motor vehicle scrap industry.
Boda-bodas were therefore a compromise position that we arrived at to solve the problems above, and THAT itself is ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’ – taking a short term compromise position and allowing it to become a long-term response (not solution) to a major problem, rather than establishing the solution itself.
See, the poor taxi system should have been fixed by firmly establishing a proper timed service with designated stages; the lousy access roads to residences fixed by determined urban planning forcing everyone to respect road reserves and drainage systems; and traffic management by being professional at traffic management right from the point of issuing driving permits.#BodaBodasBeLike - 3
But because of a ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’, we can’t even invest sensibly in transport such as a bus system that runs on time and stops at pre-designated points in 2015, even though a country like Hungary built its underground train system in 1896.
For instance you and I, educated, well-heeled, knowledgeable elites though we may be, see an ‘opportunity’ in buying a boda-boda and monitoring proceeds from it over a six-month period till the ‘investment’ has ‘paid off’ and even given us ‘profits’ – even if they collectively account for the bulk of hospital admission cases due to accidents.
#BodaBodasBeLike - 4Whereas THAT is an investment opportunity by the very definition of the words, it is only so because of our ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’, otherwise we would have identified the bigger opportunity in pooling our money together to invest in an urban train or bus service.
In fact, were it not for the ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’, the educated elite of this country would have identified opportunities in the boda-boda transport industry such as helmets made in Uganda, or more comfortable boda-boda seats designed in Uganda out of Ugandan materials, and maybe even reflective aprons made out of local materials. But none of the tens of thousands of economists, engineers, designers and what not that we have churned out of universities in Kampala and elsewhere since 1922 have gotten to this point yet.
Boda-bodas even provide an opportunity for spare parts manufacturing if somebody stops to count the number of side mirrors they destroy when they whizz past our cars in our gridlocked traffic (do a snap survey and see for yourself the gravity of this particular problem).
We have a ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’ because we tend to think just like our relatives who operate those contraptions, whose operational mannerisms we should highlight at this point:
They tend to take shortcuts even going down the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic – the same way many of us approach business, taking those short cuts that put everything at unnecessary risk, like condoning corruption, but for short-term gain and getting to the other end having left behind us hundreds of people jeering and cursing at us.#BodaBodasBeLike - 6
They don’t bother with helmets even when they have them, and ride with them placed on the handlebars – the way we don’t do the ordinarily necessary and sensible things available to us, like insurance, preventive medicine, or even having smoke detectors or fire extinguishers in our own homes!
In fact, many believe that no rules apply to them, and will gather in a mob to deal with anyone who even shouts an insult at one of their kind – exactly like some people do on social media platforms should you say anything they don’t agree with.
Plus, your regular boda-boda chap, like the special hire fellow, will only fuel up enough for their next trip or two – I dare you to step outside and check your fuel gauge or prove that you fuel up on a regular schedule. But besides that, our ‘Boda-Boda Mentality’ in this regard covers the way we are so unprepared for eventualities – including not having an umbrella on hand in the rainy season…
And until we see boda-boda riders graduating to buses with designated stages running on timed schedules, we are all just boda-boda riders masquerading as serious people.
#BodaBodasBeLike - 5

bicycles in Uganda can make you go dizzy

EVERY so often one falls upon a random story that carries no excitement until one exercises the brain a little bit.

This week it’s about ‘Fred’s Bicycles’, which has further delayed my treatise on the boda-boda mentality that plagues my people and I.

‘Fred’s Bicycles’ was started a few years ago by Jonny Coppel and Tom Freds Bicycle 2Davenport, in London, after Davenport visited Uganda on holiday one year and “…saw the ‘beautiful’ bikes used by farmers in Uganda to ferry cattle…”, at which point “he immediately saw the appeal they might have back home.”

Four years later, the story continues, “the 26-year old strategy consultant and his school friend Jonny Coppel, 25, are selling their own bicycles based on those in Uganda, as well as giving back to the place where it all started.”
I have issues with the “giving back” part of the story because it fits comfortably into the lazy narrative that Europeans have of countries like Uganda, but we will talk about that later in life.

More importantly, this story underscored to me once again the importance of a good education, rather than the instructive one-plus-one-equals-two type of schooling many of us got.

This is not to say that all British young men who visit Uganda are well educated enough to do what Davenport and Coppel did, but the fact that they came over here and identified opportunity out of an item that we actually despise as a sign of poverty and backwardness, means they are well educated.

The two young men also reminded me how much we have around us that we take for granted and yet could be very highly valued elsewhereFreds Bicycle 1 (Their bikes go for £249 each – about Ushs1.1million each).

The bicycles they talk about were not even designed or made in Uganda; from the photos on the website, these are what we used to call Hero bicycles, which eventually gave way to Roadmaster Cycles.

One other website containing a research paper by United States university Professor Jason A. Morris, even states that the Hero Bicycle was “originally built in 1913 for the British military, and it has not changed since”.

This researcher came all the way from the US to Hoima to design a bicycle for Ugandan use to replace the Hero and Roadmaster bicycles. His efforts are available in that research paper but I, personally, know nothing of the results being on the road.

Instead, I know Roadmaster Cycles started assembling bicycles here at some point at a US$6million facility (press reports say) in Nalukolongo in 1993, after seeing the opportunity in a populace that had poor roads then, lots of agricultural activity, and incomes too limited to fund car manufacturing or even assembly.
Surprisingly, to me, their website displays a wide range of products including bicycles for children! And yet, somehow, most monied people are riding mostly second hand bicycles coming in from the same England that Davenport and Coppel are selling their bikes, inspired by Uganda, or bicycles imported from South Africa and further afield.


What about the realisation that on the day I fell upon this story of Uganda’s inspiration, I saw three stories in one newspaper talking about sums of money being earned by Ugandans -Ushs100billion, Ushs15billion and Ushs400million – yet none of these will ever be converted into bicycle manufacture, assembly or anything similar anywhere in the country.

Wait! Wait! What is the most notable bicycle story YOU can think of…? Yes! The one in which Permanent Secretary John Kashaka was convicted over the sham importation of bicycles worth Ushs4billion, right?

You would probably have been less confused about it if the 70,000 bicycles in question there had been ordered direct from the Roadmaster Assembly Plant in Nalukolongo, wouldn’t you?

But according to the Public Procurement and Disposal Authority (PPDA) Investigation Report into the matter, Roadmaster was not even one of the bidders that successfully submitted bids – which list included names such as “Nile Fishing Company Limited and Shinyanga Emporium”.

I swear – go to this link for the full report  and see for yourself!

Yet, in March 2011, Roadmaster Cycles appeared in press reports alongside John Kashaka as he officiated at the distribution of 5,200 bicycles to Parish Chiefs (LCs). The bicycles, read the report, were worth Ushs669million (each just over Ushs128,000 – about a tenth of the cost of Fred’s Bicycles…) – and were distributed at the Roadmaster premises.
Exactly one year later, Roadmaster Cycles registered a complaint with the PPDA because the company had reportedly submitted the lowest bid of Ushs5.2billion for the supply of 30,000 bicycles, but the tender had gone to the wrongly named (for this purpose) Nile Fishing Company Limited who had won the tender to supply the bikes at Ushs6.4billion…
According to press reports, the Permanent Secretary who had replaced Kashaka, Patrick Mutabwire, said Roadmaster had no basis for complaint; see, under the winning bid: “Each bicycle would be delivered here at about US$85 (about Ushs200,000) yet on the open market they go for Ushs400,000 each…” (yet just a year prior to that, they had cost Ushs128,000 each!)
Bicycles can really make you go dizzy…

the day stephen bought some new car insurance

Dedicating this morning to the protagonists in a series of actions that constituted the following experience recounted to me last week, and that I hope you one day go through first hand, if you have not already encountered people of this nature.

Stephen (not real name unless you actually know the guy – in which case, feel free to shell him to the high heavens) is the lazy type of gainfully employed Ugandan who will not do anything close to manual or menial provided there is a chap nearby who values a Ushs500 coin or two.

Last week on about Thursday he renewed his third party insurance by way of a loose boda-boda bound courier, and realised as he got to his home later in the night that the sticker had not been applied to the relevant part of his vehicle windscreen.

He was too lazy, as mentioned above, to reach across to the co-driver’s seat for the insurance tag and accompanying adhesive sticker, un-peel both and apply them against the glass.

The work involved would have taken almost as long as reading the above paragraph both times you did.

Instead, he went to bed, and the problem was still present when he returned to the car the next morning. By convenience, the askari was hovering nearby and ready to receive instructions to place the insurance sticker where it should be.

“Take off the old one first, then put this one there,” Stephen told him, handing over a couple of thousand shillings for the job, before going back in to do something less menial for a few minutes and generally not be in the presence of such work being done at his vehicle.

He eventually drove to the office and just as he was tossing the keys to the fellow who washes it every morning, he noticed something amiss with the newly-placed insurance sticker.

He couldn’t believe that the askari fellow had done the job so wrong, and turned to the car-washing chap to ask, “Do you see what’s wrong with that insurance sticker?”

“Yes, sir,” responded the car-washing guy, chuckling a bit at the foolishness of whoever had placed it, and quite certain that this was going to result in a revenue earning task for him.

The sticker had been placed on the windshield upside down. The words were facing downwards instead of upwards. The logo of the insurance company, which was quite recognisable even if one were incapable of making out the words by way of reading, was also upside down.

This proved both that the askari was definitely not a scholar who had fallen on hard times and resorted to that lowly occupation, and that he was not a man of simple logic. The wretched chap had probably stood by the side of the car at such an angle that he was holding the sticker upright by the time he approached the vehicle windscreen, but found himself having to turn his arm downwards in order to place it in the required spot.

Stephen shook his head in both wonder and dismay, then issued instructions to the car washing guy to fix it. And he left to get some white collar work done within the comfort of his office, surrounded by computers, internet access, coffee and biscuits and people far more sensible.

Several hours later, responding to a meeting alert about a lunch meeting at a trendy nearby cafe, he put his computer to sleep, made for his clean vehicle and was just about to set off when he noticed something else amiss.

He shot out of the car in a panic and went closer to inspect it, and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

The car washing guy had ‘fixed it’ by pasting the insurance sticker onto the front of the windscreen, with the back of the sticker facing up top; so that if a traffic officer needed to read the sticker, he would have to push his head into the car to see the details thereon.

Stephen was flummoxed. He could not understand how the car washing guy had never noticed in all these years that the stickers are placed under the windscreen with the details facing outwards. He also could not work out why the guy had not noticed that this was the case with the other, older car insurance sticker that was still in place.

And by the way, hadn’t he told the askari to first remove the old sticker and then replace it with the new one?!!!

the daily dose of a certain type of chap

There is a lot to report under this category, but I will stick with the unusual yet common one; the one that stood out more than the rest, and who is very unlikely to ever interact with me, personally, again.

He was in Bunamwaya, perched atop his boda-boda and either a: doing absolutely nothing or; b) mentally solving calculus equations or; c) using his brain for anything in between a) and b).

I was a little lost, trying to get to one Dr. Mutesasira’s residence, and had been given the instruction: “Ask any boda-boda man – they all know the way.”

This fellow was, to all intents and purposes, a boda-boda man. He was sitting on a boda-boda. The boda-boda was at a ‘siteegi‘ (aka stage). I slowed down as I approached, wore that face of uncertainty coupled with politeness that we have to wear when seeking this type of help.

Boda?” I asked, having slowed to a complete halt right in front of him.


Oli wa wano? Are you from here?”


Phew! Problem solved. I’d be at my destination shortly and out in time for my next meeting.

In Luganda, I continued:

‘Can you direct me? Do you know where Dr. Mutesasira’s place is?’


That one word, and the tone of voice he used, was confirmation enough that he did not.

But he went on anyway, “Perhaps…(Oba…)”

And he didn’t do that thing that we sometimes do of pretending to think about it, or trying to recall the directions. He just didn’t know – but that was not going to stop him trying to ‘help’.

And this is where I gave him his label.

“I think I have heard his name,” the fellow began.

“But do you know him? Do you know where he lives?”

“Hah. Maybe I know him by another name. If I see him I might find that I know him.”

We looked at each other for a moment as I hoped that what I was thinking at that time would be sinking into his mind.

Did he: a) think I was driving around trying to establish whether people on boda-bodas generally knew a Dr. Mutesasira? b) expect me to begin suggesting other names by which he might know Dr. Mutesasira, and if b) then c) how would I know which name he would know Dr. Mutesasira by? How long did he think we had to spend playing that particular guessing game? And; d) did he expect me to whip out photos of this Dr. Mutesasira so he identifies him, or to arrange a mini-identification parade?

I took my dose in full measure, thanked him and drove on.