BY DAVID WANJALA
From mid 1970s all the way into late 80s, smuggling of consumer goods thrived along the border of Kenya and Uganda in what is now known as Busia County with Busia town, the District, and now County Headquarters being the centre of action. It was a matter of life and death but the returns were worth the risk. To beat the police dragnets, Busia Town being a one-street town, the locals favoured the use of bicycles to ferry the goods to Uganda by avoiding the only tarmac and therefore straight leading into Uganda.
They used footpaths, popularly known then as panya (rats) routes that the police Land Rovers could not easily access. Scenes of overloaded bicycles expertly maneuvered through the border villages with police on hot pursuit mostly on foot on bicycles as well were commonplace. It was a risky affair. If the Kenya Police caught up with you, you risked long jail terms but if, as a Kenyan you were unlucky to be caught by the Idi Amin Dada’s (Uganda’s President at the time) soldiers on the Ugandan land, which back then was under civil turmoil, you were killed.
And so to survive, the traders developed unrivaled cycling skills – only the fittest survived. They could, for instance, balance a 90kg sack of cereals untied on the bicycle and still beat a police officer riding alone on a bicycle in a chase. But you cannot beat government systems, what is popularly known back here as the long arm of the law.
The governments on both sides were determined to end tax evasion. Eventually, the traders gave up in mid 80s when the risks involved became unbearable. But the bicycle had already become a popular means of transport that could not be damped merely because the smuggling business had come to an end.
It evolved into a popular means of transport of people especially those heading to the border either as small-scale traders or shoppers and legitimate goods. To hail a rider who always rode to and from the border on the main street of the town hoping to be flagged down by the locals, one needed only shout “border, border” to inquire if they could be transported to the border. And so the name Boda Boda, for quick fix bike transport was born.
Not just that, bicycle transport spread first to major towns of Western Kenya, then to all other regions of the country including Kisumu and Nairobi cities carrying with it the name Boda Boda. It did not matter whether it was in Nyalenda in Kisumu or along Jogoo road in Nairobi where there were no borders to cross, so long as a bicycle was being used for public transport, it was referred to as Boda Boda.
When the economy boomed, especially in the 10 years of President Kibaki, from 2002 to 2013 the bicycle was dumped, at least largely, as proprietors up-scaled to motorbikes making what was only the reserve of a few privileged in society become accessible to all.
From before and after independence in 1964, a motorcycle was only synonymous with government, and therefore power. For those of us who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, you could only spot a motorcycle with an agricultural extension officer, a District Education Officer who, whenever they rode their Yamaha, Suzuki or Honda motorbike into a school compound unannounced, school heads developed stomach upsets, and senior provincial administration officers. Towards the late 80s into early 90s, NGO field officers too joined the ranks.
As the century turned, so did the norm in the motorbike transport. By around 2005, with traffic jams in major urban centres including Nairobi and poor road infrastructure in the rural areas, the motorbike had penetrated the public transport system and nearly entirely replaced the bicycle. Interestingly, the shift did not leave the name Boda Boda with the bicycle; it crossed over with it.
The paradigm shift has brought with it unparalleled success in job creation and business opportunities. Earnings from the boda boda sector, it was reported in early 2018, had surpassed East Africa’s most profitable company, Safaricom’s 2017 revenue by Sh7 billion making the sector emerge as one of the biggest drivers of the economy with operators generating Sh219 billion in 2017, according to the Motorcycle Assemblers Association of Kenya. Two years on and the future is still busting with vast opportunities.
The stellar rise in demand of motorcycles from around 2003 moving forward meant, first, that the market opened floodgates for imports mainly from India and Asia with affordability as the main consideration. For the first time, the superior brands of the yore like Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki took a back seat. Secondly, that importing alone cannot sustain the industry and so local assembly has been roped in. It is here that Huib Van de Grijspaarde, CEO and founder of Kibo Africa Limited, gets into the mix.
Kibo Africa Ltd are the manufacturers of the high end locally assembled Kibo Motorcycle. Headquartered in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Kibo Africa set up shop in Kenya in 2013 even though the mother company in the Netherlands had already been set up in 2011. It is an idea, Mr Grijspaarde, popularly known as Huib shares, which stemmed from the realization that motorcycles in Kenya, like in most of the other countries on the African continent, play a very important role in life for many people. In his home country, he offers, they use motorcycles mostly for leisure.
A development economist, a motorcycle enthusiast and a hobby mechanic, Huib put his mind to use on how to fuse his education with life experiences with motorbikes to establish the gaps and fill them up on realizing the celebrated role of motorcycles in the transport sector in Kenya.
“When these things came together; my love for motorcycles, my economics background and my understanding of the importance of the role of motorbikes in a society like Kenya’s, I felt very excited. That’s when I started to develop ideas around setting up a business that could lead to an improved way of developing motorbikes making them especially for the uses that we see in a country like Kenya,” he said during an interview with NBM at their assembly plant in Embakasi, Nairobi.
Safety and reliability, and therefore, quality quickly became the entry point, their niche. And that is the vision of Kibo, to bring safe and reliable mobility to all people in Africa and beyond, by bringing with their motorbikes quality that people can trust, especially that a motorbike is an integral part in every step of development in the lives of Kenyans and by extension, Africans. It is all about the design of the bike, how you build it in terms of features and the protective gear for the rider, Huib offers.
Choosing Kenya in Africa for Mr Huib was easy. First, Kenyans, he says, are very entrepreneurial and being one himself he felt he could “benefit from what we share and also from where we differ in terms of our backgrounds.”
Importantly however, he saw a ready market for motorcycles, which is growing very rapidly and thirdly, Kenya in East Africa where he saw similar market developments, is the hub, especially in Nairobi. The Port of Mombasa also came into play in his choice for Kenya, albeit peripherally, considering they bring in parts from all over the world making logistics a key factor. Therefore the market, the people and the position of Kenya within East Africa played favour.
Kibo Africa Ltd in Kenya has its commercial office along Waiyaki Way in Nairobi, the assembly in Embakasi and a network of Kibo Centres in Meru, Nakuru,Kisumu and in Mombasa. They spent the first three years in intensive research and design (R&D) including project development, designing and engineering in collaboration with the Amsterdam office and only started production in 2017. It is from here that they began coming into contact with government policies, one of the major one being the CKD (Complete Knockdown) remissions on duty, which the Kibo CEO supports.
“That is to incentify the industry to create jobs here which I support. It is one of my great passions, I think, to not do everything that guys are able to do in this building in Asia and ship a motorbike in a box and then just put it in the market here. The fact that we make our bikes here means something in terms of what the product has become, how it was designed, how we make it, also how we sell it, the story we tell about it. And the CKD policy actually supports that.”
The support of the CKD remission policy by Mr Huib is, however, not without a pinch of salt. He says it is not clear on what is complete. The level as set out in the policy, he opines, is not very demanding for motorcycle assemblers meaning that the number of people that you require on average to put together one bike is low. The remissions, on the other hand, that the industry gets for that are pretty high for a relatively small job creation.
“At Kibo we bring in complete knockdown. If you look at the wheel, for example, we bring the parts; the hubs, the rims, the inner tubes, the outer tubes and we put that together here. So you can understand that the number of jobs that you create at that level is much higher than if you just open the box and take out the wheel.”
The assembly capacity for Kibo Africa’s plant in Embakasi is 5000 units a year, being relatively manual in comparison to international standards, which makes a lot of sense because “what would be the purpose of assembling here and bringing in some robots to do the work?” the father of two quips. On average, they are currently assembling five bikes in a day with at least 50 local employees across the departments of the company.
“When we bring on board a customer who is going to take a bike to a region where we do not have bikes yet, we start engaging with the mechanics and we offer them a business opportunity. We’ve actually already vetted all the country for good quality mechanics. We train them and we keep visiting and to support them with the business and as we grow, they also grow.”
Their pilot sales running for half year in 2017 sold around 100 bikes, before they ramped up production in 2018. By end of year, they will have sold close to 1000 units. By 2022, they are targeting at least 8000 units a year, given that they will have diversified production to bring on board affordability. Their current model, K150 goes for Sh420, 000 VAT inclusive. In two years, as a market strategy, they will have launched a model that will cost less than Sh200, 000 inclusive VAT without compromising their vision of safety and reliability, targeting to disrupt the status quo in the boda boda marget segment.
Kibo Africa has a diverse market group including wildlife conservancy that need to cover wide areas and challenging terrain for which Kibo is specifically made, agricultural extension officers, large farm tea plantations, security companies, high-end courier companies, government “in the widest sense of the word”, NGOs including the Red Cross and Amref, and the Office of the President – courier.
K150 (150cc) is a unique bike engineered for the African terrain and operating in the league of Yamaha and Honda. With, for instance, rear tyre type of 5.10-18inch tube type, an outside frame that holds together every other component from within, plastic mould bumpers and fuel tank to manage the bike weight, a fuel capacity of 6.8litres averaging 42km/ltr and a ground clearance of 200mm, the bike is in a class way ahead of the rest. There are many other features that came up from the extensive local R&D that have taken care of the discomforts of the local riders that the imports cared less about, offers Ms Janet Nyamu, production manager.
Other customized features of the K150 that arose from the local R & D, Ms Nyamu offers, include automatic lighting once the bike is switched on. “Most local riders do not know that bikes are supposed to have their lights on 24/7 when in use and this oversight has contributed to a lot of avoidable accidents, some fatal.” It also has two options for starting the engine; ignition and kick-start, and the instrument panel is digital, minimizing chances of tempering with mileage.
Kibo Africa Ltd is an investment that took about Sh1.14 billion to put up, from R&D, engineering, the assembly plant to the distribution network. The company, Mr Huib says, takes a lot of pride in knowledge transfer.
“We are lucky that we have a number of technical universities that rank top in the world. As such, we have very talented and skilled engineers in the Netherlands. Kenya has talent, but the rest of the ecosystem still needs to develop. The manufacturing sector is small so opportunities for talented people who have had good education in kenya do not find a job that relates to their own background. At Kibo we get to provide some of those opportunities and that is really nice to do because we bring our engineers to Kenya to work with the mechanics and the engineering team,” he said.
Motorbike transport in Africa has a whole world ahead of it. The market opportunities are vast. The resilience, passion and ingenuity at Kibo Africa assures of progress and it is a sure bet that with commitment, the company should reach its target of producing 8000 units a year.