An uber-style phone app that helps motorbike taxi riders find careful drivers and makes the streets safer is gearing up to transform transport across Africa. SafeMotos uses GPS and gyroscopic data to log and rate drivers’ location and road behaviour in real time so passengers can hail motorcycle taxis based on their driver’s safety score.
Called motos in Rwanda, boda-bodas in Kenya and Uganda and okadas in Nigeria, cheap and nippy motorcycle taxis are Africa’s go-to transport. And they’re dangerous – motorbike accidents are a leading cause of death, in some coming scarily close behind malaria and HIV/AIDS.
SafeMotos started life in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, in 2015, borrowing from research by Brunel University London into moto drivers’ lives and livelihoods and how they weigh up risk, safety and profit.
Anthropologist Dr Will Rollason spent three years in the East African capital studying the motos business, bike ownership, running costs, state regulation in relation to local politics and real-life working practices. Motos appeared in Rwanda relatively recently in the mid-90s, and little was known about their business model there and across East Africa.
Moto drivers mostly are young men, many of whom are migrants who left school at about 11 years old. They are not usually poor and make good money by local standards, and often support families of four or more. But their margins are narrow, taxes and other charges plus motorbike maintenance costs take a big chunk of what they make. While it’s a risky job, with accidents, crime and breakdowns the norm, riders themselves are risk-averse, preferring to take passengers they know in familiar areas.
Most moto drivers, Dr Rollason discovered, don’t own their own bikes, but rent them or buy them on credit from small business people. To work legally in Rwanda, drivers must belong to syndicates or belong to a professional body, which demand fees or rents with nothing in return. City authorities, police and security staff demanding bribes and fines are a constant menace.
Rwanda’s media widely covered Dr Rollason’s study report to the city council, which was picked up and read by SafeMotos founder Barret Nash, who calls it ‘the company’s bible’. Working with self-taught coder, Peter Kariuki, Nash used the research to design a socially responsible business model. Drivers need to be screened and have three years’ experience to join SafeMotos. They carry a smartphone and the SafeMotos app that records their speed, acceleration, location, and lean to give a safety score out of a hundred. Drivers need to notch up a rating of at least 90 to keep working with the company.
After three years in Kigali, SafeMotos has grown its pool of drivers by hundreds, drivers earn more and road accidents have dropped. In 2019, following Dr Rollason’s business bible, the company expanded into the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project
Dr Will Rollason - My research is motivated by the question of how to talk about other people in a way that recognises difference while also being able to take account of power, injustice and inequality. I'm fascinated by other people's ways of life, but always suspicious of our ability to talk about them in good faith. Increasingly, I'm unsure whether anthropology should talk about other people at all and how a middle aged white guy like me can practice the discipline in an ethical way.
These are big questions, and my research career has been varied as a result. For my PhD, I conducted fieldwork on football and sea cucumber fishing on Panapompom, an island in south east Papua New Guinea. That work led me to focus on the ways anthropologists of Melanesia understand difference, and the ways these understandings differ from and conflict with local people's ideas and aspirations. After arriving at Brunel, I did twelve months of ethnographic research in Kigali, Rwanda, working with motorcycle taxi drivers. That project was concerned with the ways ordinary Rwandans understand power, how they relate to state agencies and how these ideas and relations contrast with social scientific theories of power and resistance.
My most recent work has turned directly to the relationship between difference and inequality by focusing on Melanesian anthropology writ large, and by thinking through the notion of compliance in anthropology. I've also turned to new sources of ethnographic data, engaging with novel objects - insects, airliners - to help me think through power and difference in the global north.
BA 1st Hons, University of London LSE (2002)
PhD in Social Anthropology, University of Manchester (2008)
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Project last modified 11/05/2022