In Kenya, Bicycles Leave Taxis in the Dust

Bicycle taxis are rapidly supplanting gasoline-powered minibus taxis in parts of western Kenya, according to an April 26 report by Inter Press Service. Residents of Kisumu, a small city 500 kilometers from Nairobi, have long relied on the minibuses, or “matatus,” to get around. But as improvements in the bicycle industry lead to lower production costs, sales of the pedal-powered alternatives are booming.

Kisumu’s bike taxi commuters can now cross town for half the price of a matatu ride, and they usually arrive at their destinations faster because the bicycles, known as “boda bodas,” maneuver through traffic more easily. The bikes also bring environmental benefits, including cleaner air and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. And bicycle taxis offer a means of income for a larger share of the population, compared with the more capital-intensive and gasoline-dependent matatus. “I never, ever thought I could have my own company,” proclaimed one new bicycle taxi entrepreneur. “I am happy. My children are eating.” 

But as bicycles bring greater prosperity to their owners, local matatu businesses are struggling. Some drivers have attempted to survive by courting a niche market of people traveling to Nairobi; others have decided to sell their vehicles and buy their own bicycles. The bikes do have drawbacks, however: many cyclists are hit and killed by reckless motorists. Bike taxis also favor the strong and able, as cyclists rely on their own power to transport several times their body weight.

Interest in bicycle transport is growing across Africa as companies seek to design high-quality yet affordable bikes, and as government policies promote their use. In Ghana, bike sales now stand at about 30 per 1,000 people, roughly 50 percent higher than in China, a much wealthier country. But China remains the world’s largest bicycle producer, accounting for some 58 percent of the world total. Worldwide, bike production has grown steadily in recent years, with more than 100 million units manufactured annually.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.