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Kenya’s queens of the road

Current Affairs

Kenya’s queens of the road

While motorcycles are a growth market on the continent, a major gender revolution is taking place in Kenya – here women are not only passengers, they are riders and couriers. Aamera Jiwaji reports on how women’s new found love-affair with the motorcycle is changing the gender dynamics of transport.

Nairobi drivers call the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, called boda bodas, the ‘Staff of Moses’ because they expect everyone else on the road to part like the Red Sea and let them through. So even when traffic in Kenya’s capital is at a standstill, with barely enough space for a person to walk between two cars, boda bodas will force the lanes to split and create a throughway for them.

These motorcycle taxis are known for intimidating other road users, and it is common to see one driving down a pedestrian path or into oncoming traffic in an attempt to reach their destination more quickly and profitably.

But their reputation has tarred other two-wheelers by association, in particular women motorcycle riders, a group of road users that has recently surged in Kenya.

Over the last three years, 70% of students that enrolled at Inked Biker, one of the motorcycle training schools in Nairobi, have been women. When Covid hit, interest spiked further since there was increased aversion towards public transport, with its cramped quarters and poor ventilation; and because Kenya’s fuel prices had jumped to the highest in East Africa at Kshs. 127/litre.

The motorcycle is one of the most convenient modes of transport and a common feature on Kenya’s urban and rural roads. In its 2021 industry outlook, London-based Goldstein Market Intelligence predicts that Kenya will be one of the most thriving markets in Africa for two-wheelers, and that the continental market as a whole will grow at a compounded annual rate of 9.1%, reaching $9.3bn by 2030.

This growth, the report says, is driven by greater demand for affordable transport, traffic gridlocks and rising fuel prices. Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that in July 2020, motorcycle sales rebounded to pre-Covid levels, with 18,265 units sold that month, three times the number for April. In February, new vehicle registrations fell but motorcycles took up 70% of the share.

The affordability of motorcycles has also increased as new brands enter the Kenyan market. Kibo, which is designed in the Netherlands with the East African terrain in mind, offers an alternative to popular brands such as Car & General’s TVS, Honda, Bajaj’s Boxer, and Yamaha (Toyota Kenya).

The higher levels of carbon emission produced by motorcycles has also seen increased investment in clean energy technology. Strathmore University’s Energy Research Centre is developing a solar-powered three-wheeler, which they estimate will sell for $1,000 once they enter production.

Fika Mobility, which means ‘to arrive’ in Kiswahili, is a local initiative developing electric motorcycles. Units will be priced at $1,200, and are estimated to reduce fuel costs by 20%.

Mentorship model

Seeing increased interest from women bikers, Inked Rider’s instructor Malibu wa Makibo prompted his students to create a club that would provide mentorship and support, given the unique challenges women would face on the road.

Inked Sisterhood began in 2015 and today it has 150 members from Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret, Nakuru, Kitale, and Nyeri.

The club borrows from the government’s 2013 Nyumba Kumi (Ten Houses) community policing initiative, which was a “know your neighbour” approach to tackling insecurity and specifically, terrorism. For them, the concept translates to a collective of 10 homes, which provides companionship and support when navigating the roads.

“For each major route, you would know everybody who lives in that area. So if you need assistance, if you’re stuck on the road, you post it in your Nyumba Kumi [WhatsApp] group and you say: ‘I’m stuck at Pangani. I need help.’ People on the route will stop and help and will even come from their houses to help you,” said Michelle Maina, coordinator for Inked Sisterhood and organising secretary of the Private Bikers Association of Kenya.

Pre-Covid, they offered courses on first aid training and bike maintenance, such as oil changes. These bikers are also redrawing route maps from a women’s perspective. When one of their riders travelled to Turkana in northwest Kenya, she marked all the clean toilets along the route. Similar women’s biker groups have mushroomed over the last five years, including Throttle Queens, Heels of Steel, and Piki Dada.

Commercial sector

When on the road, if the flare of their hips doesn’t identify them as women then their riding style, well-maintained bikes, and full gear might. If that doesn’t, the flash of pink from a stripe on their jackets or from a pink ponytail attached to the back of their helmets will.

Amanya Kuchio doesn’t wear a pink ponytail but she is still visible on Nairobi roads as a woman biker. When she started riding in 2018, her decision was motivated by cost and time. She used to take a matatu to work and would spend five hours on the road every day, and change vehicles three times. (Matatus are 14-seater privately owned minibuses.)

She switched to a motorcycle, reducing her monthly transport budget to Kshs. 4,000 for a 35km commute, and would reach home within an hour. Another member of Inked Sisterhood commutes to Nairobi from Athi River, a satellite city 50km from the capital.

Shortly before Covid, Kuchio lost her full-time job, so she and another woman from her Nyumba Kumi group started Femme Logistics. It is an all-woman courier company, which runs errands and delivers small packages in and around Nairobi.

Before the lockdown, they delivered as far away as Naivasha and Nakuru (76km and 140km from Nairobi respectively). Over a year later, she and her co-founder, Njeri Mbogo, have hired three riders and an operations manager to help coordinate daily deliveries.

“Women don’t have the same opportunities as men. We wanted to be able to create a platform where women can find gainful employment,” she said. One of their measures of success is hiring four women within a year, two of whom are college graduates, who work for them as a side gig.

Malkia Moto Club is a group that brings together women entrepreneurs who use motorcycles for business. Wamuyu Kariuki, the club sponsor, is especially passionate about road safety in the commercial motorcycle sector.

In 2018, she and her husband started their world tour by motorcycle. They had covered 20 countries in Africa and South America when the pandemic hit and they had to return to Kenya from Nicaragua.

Kariuki mentors Alice Shilisia, chair of Malkia Moto Club, and their membership is currently 16 riders. Shilisia is a boda boda courier with Glovo and Sendy, on-demand e-logistics and delivery companies that connect clients to couriers.

She graduated with a diploma in Criminology and was working as a security guard at the Ministry of Works Sports Club in Kenya’s South C area. The job was temporary and when the contract ended, she bought a Bajaj Boxer for Kshs.110,000 and became a boda boda courier. When she first started, she would earn Kshs.110 per order, but she is now paid according to the distance covered and delivers between 8-15 packages a day.

“If you choose the company well, it can be the best business to work in because you get paid daily,” she said. As a single mother, her boda boda business allows her to rely on her own income.

Kariuki has plans to grow club membership by including women from Isiolo, Karatina, Kisumu, and Kericho who use motorcycles for commercial work. She has identified three women in Karatina who use their bikes to reach and educate farmers in Nyeri county. Other future members are widows who started riding their husbands’ boda bodas to ferry passengers after losing their spouses in road accidents.

Breaking barriers

By riding motorcycles, Nairobi’s women bikers are challenging gender stereotypes in a patriarchal society. Members of Inked Sisterhood have been told that they are jeopardising their chances of getting married by riding a motorcycle, and some were asked if they have their husband’s permission to ride. Religion and customary beliefs also play a role. There are only two Muslim women in Inked Sisterhood who ride with the full support of their families.

When Maina enrolled in Malibu’s Inked Biker training three years ago, she didn’t tell her husband or anyone in her family because she didn’t want them to discourage her or to know if she gave up midway. She only told them once she was licensed, by which time it was a done deal; fortunately, they were all supportive.

Soon after she bought her first bike, a Suzuki Gixxer, and started commuting to downtown Nairobi. Even though she is among the younger members of Inked Sisterhood, whose ages range to the mid 50s, she admires one of the group’s youngest members: a 20-year-old university student.

“I think about myself in university. If I had been riding then, my way of thinking would be so different. I would have been able to interact with different people. I would have been able to see things from a different perspective. I would have had no barrier where I cannot travel to far places if I didn’t have the budget. It’s such an empowering thing.”

The opportunity to break barriers resonates with other women bikers. When the group travelled to Isiolo county for International Women’s Day 2021 to donate helmets and gear to boda boda women, they were told that their visit would show the girl-child that they too can ride a motorbike. “You get that feeling of ‘I want to do this because the women in my community have been oppressed from doing what they wanted to do’,” said Maina.

As Kenya’s boda boda reputation in East Africa develops, its women bikers are carving out a niche for themselves as both commuters and entrepreneurs. “We don’t just consider ourselves to be influencers. We are thought leaders,” said Kariuki. 

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