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 - Will received his PhD from the University of Manchester in 2008. His thesis was based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork on the island of Panapompom in southeast Papua New Guinea (PNG) between 2004 and 2006. His fieldwork focussed on young men, following their involvement in a newly established football association, and their work diving for the edible sea cucumber that local people make into bêche-de-mer – a luxury food for export.
His thesis has been published under the title, We are Playing Football: Sport and Postcolonial Subjectivity on Panapompom Island, Papua New Guinea by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Will subsequently pursued ideas about the future in shaping social life. He recently edited a volume entitled Future Selves in the Pacific: projects, politics and interests published by Berghahn.
Since then, Will has developed a new research project in Rwanda, which considers the nature of power in relations to forms of personhood in the context of the motorcycle taxi business in Kigali. This is the subject of a number of his most recent papers, as well as a new monograph that he is developing
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