President Uhuru Kenyatta last month came face to face with the unruly nature of boda bodas when he met with more than 5,000 of the riders in Kisii County.
He had a noble idea for them: That they form a group and formalise their investment through a rural sacco owned and run by them.
To start off, he offered Sh10 million seed money for the sacco.
However, the President, who was flanked by former PM Raila Odinga and Interior CS Fred Matiang'i was shocked by the response from the riders who flatly rejected his proposal.
Living up to their bad reputation, the young men told Mr Kenyatta to his face that they wanted the money to share out among themselves.
Their demand to be given the cash, instead of it being put in their sacco for long term investments, left many – including the President – shocked.
And as if to teach them a lesson, he cut the offer from Sh10 million to Sh3 million, promising to increase it once they were organised.
“You have shocked me. But please ensure you call me once you get organised and I will be available to fulfil my promise of supporting you to invest through your sacco. For now, I will give you the lesser amount, Sh3 million, which you will share amongst yourselves,” said President Kenyatta.
Defiance, lawlessness, ignorance and greed
It was a classic portrayal of defiance, lawlessness, ignorance and greed as the riders shot down the President’s proposal.
The boda boda riders would later share the money in chaotic scenes, with some claiming that their leaders had shortchanged them.
The Kisii incident, while it appears isolated, however, tells a bigger story of the state of affairs of the country’s boda boda business.
For starters, you find the best and the worst elements in their midst.
They range from university graduates who have been compelled to join the sector to genuinely eke out a living, to some of the most dangerous criminals and gangsters for hire, who have found the boda boda business the perfect smokescreen.
Currently, no other informal sector in Kenya is growing as fast as the boda boda industry. Yet no other sector in the country is as unregulated, poorly coordinated, chaotic and messy as this one.
In Kisii, some locals describe them as the new lords of impunity in the county, outside political circles.
They present themselves as a law unto themselves. They are not bound by any traffic rules and if anything happens to them while they are on the wrong, they are never to blame.
Cases of riders killing drivers or burning vehicles after an accident have been reported in the country.
There are about 11,000 boda bodas in Kisii County alone. The number could be higher since some riders are not registered under their association.
But Kisii County Boda-boda chairman Mike Mose defended the decision to opt for cash from President Kenyatta.
“It is not that we were defiant. Not all of us are in the sacco, so some members felt like they would have been locked out if the money was channeled through the sacco. They insisted on cash so that all could benefit,” he said.
But some locals have argued that the incident brought to the fore the defiance, impunity and lawlessness that defines the boda boda business.
“You cannot lack those troublesome people in any industry. We admit we still have many challenges, but we keep solving them one by one,” Mr Mose defended his members, saying every family has a black sheep.
Boda bodas of yesteryears
He added that the boda bodas of yesteryears cannot be compared with those of today.
“A lot has changed. Most of those in the industry are now focused on earning genuine money,” he says, adding that the greatest challenge now is political interference.
The industry, for example, came into sharp focus two months ago when rival groups clashed ahead of Deputy President William Ruto’s arrival in Kisii. Two riders sustained serious injuries.
“I am pleading with my colleagues not to allow politicians to split us and use some of us for selfish reasons,” says Mr Mose.
But the sector, which plays a crucial role in rural transportation, has its positive side, having made life bearable for many families.
People, especially those in rural areas, are now able to move from one place to another with ease. More families are now economically able, thanks to the industry.
Mr Moses Orina is a boda rider, who has had to forget about school and focus on making an income from the motorcycle.
He got into the business in early May after schools were closed to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Mr Orina, 25, hails from Magena in Kisii County. He is a fourth-year nursing student at the Kenya Medical Training College, Kisii Campus, a course he joined after studying procurement and supply for two years at Kisii University.
He had always wanted to do medicine, so he dropped the university course mid-way and joined nursing when he got a chance.
“I am waiting for my final exams. Coronavirus has delayed everything. That is why I decided to make myself busy by venturing into the boda boda industry,” said Mr Orina, the last born in a family of five.
Kisii County Commissioner Abdirasack Jaldesa says a lot is being done behind the scenes to ensure sanity in the industry.
“We have been meeting with boda bodas to just make sure they do things the right way,” said Mr Jaldesa.