The COVID-19 pandemic has been a bumpy road for boda boda drivers in East Africa.
The ubiquitous motorcycle taxis that ferry passengers along city streets have been declared a health hazard, were regulated, shut down and then reinstated. They’ve also been recognized as part of an emerging sector of affordable transportation that employs young people and is essential to rebuilding local economies.
More recently, drivers of boda bodas in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda are taking on a new title: public health champions.
Earlier this year, Africa Lion Advisory (ALA), a Kenyan financial advisory company, trained 3,595 Ugandan boda boda drivers on how to protect themselves, their customers and communities against COVID-19.
Hilda Wangari, communications lead for the trainings, said ALA’s aim was to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 by teaching drivers to spread health information, protective measures and safety tips instead.
“Our pilot project was in Nairobi (in 2020), then we were steadily able to expand operations to other parts of Kenya and eventually Uganda and Rwanda,” she said in a September interview with technology blog HapaKenya.
“The expansion was inspired by the need to spread this vital information on COVID-19, as we leveraged on the numerous boda boda operators across the three countries.”
Wangari said the program has trained 12,940 drivers.
Francis Asiku, who drives in Kampala, said the training changed him for the better.
“I never used to wear a mask, use sanitizers, or follow any health guidelines to protect myself and others,” he said in a statement. “Now, after the program I follow the safety protocols.
“This has also served to attract more passengers.”
In the early days of the pandemic, boda boda operators dealt with many restrictions on movement out of concern that the drivers’ close contact with passengers could make them COVID-19 superspreaders.
ALA estimates the average driver makes three contacts a day. Some countries banned motorcycle taxis or limited them through curfews.
The training curriculum, which can be accessed by smartphones and analog phones, is available in English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and Luganda. ALA developed it in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. ALA also created an educational animated video series that it shared with drivers on WhatsApp.
After their training, drivers were given masks, hand sanitizer and reflective safety vests with COVID-19 awareness messaging.
Asiku, his business steady once again, counts himself among the converted. Now, he’s not just a believer — he’s an ambassador.
“I call upon everyone, especially my fellow riders as well as the passengers we carry, to always follow the Ministry of Health’s safety protocols to avoid contracting and spreading the virus to others,” he said.