Boda boda pioneer rides into the sunset; let’s cement his legacy

Saturday July 15 2023

Photo illustration. PHOTO | NMG


As parliaments in the East African capitals were receiving the national budgets to mark the end of the financial year mid-June, residents of Busia town on the Kenya-Uganda border were bidding farewell to a transport pioneer, whose eight and a half decades of life had also come to an end.

Mzee Ali Maende, widely believed to have been the first boda boda rider, reputedly launched the commercial passenger two-wheel transport soon after Uganda’s independence over six decades ago.

He had, in recent years, been telling the story of how he exchanged the family cow with a bicycle soon after his father died.

Maende, who was in later years known as Mzee Ali, then tied a white handkerchief on his “iron horse” and rode to the Kenya side, offering travellers a ride across the then lengthy no-man’s-land to the Uganda side, where they would take buses to Kampala. He would then do the same in the other direction.

Ali Maende became relatively prosperous from his manual taxi business, which was a back-breaking undertaking since it was not motorised like the latter-day boda boda that we know.

Read: SafeBoda exits Nigeria to focus on 'profitable' Uganda  


The transition from beast (whatever commercial use he would have put the inherited cow to) to bicycle paid off and other young men took note. They also made whatever sacrifices they could and started acquiring bicycles to ferry travellers.

Boda boda bicycles became numerous during the seventies when Uganda’s economy got messed up and direct transit bus services between Nairobi and Kampala were discontinued. Everyone had to disembark at their side of the border and cross on foot to the next country, where they would take another bus. Demand for the bike rides grew.

Mzee Ali continued riding the manual bicycle for three decades into the 1990s as his strength started giving way, so he did not make the transition to the motorised bike, the boda boda as you know it today.

His son Ahmed Yusuf, however, took up the father’s trade and started off with a motorbike. Mzee Ali retired as the transport sector was retiring the manual bike to the petrol-powered one.

He now leaves the world as the petrol bike starts giving way to the electric one. Maybe if he had lived a few years longer he would have ridden into his nineties using an easier-to-handle electric machine.

We can safely say that 99 percent of Uganda’s boda boda riders — and there are an estimated one million of them — have never heard of Mzee Ali, the father of their profession. He was not recognised on June 9, the day Uganda fetes its heroes, whose list keeps growing.

Although he kept saying he should be recognised, the people who matter never got to hear his cry. Recognising Mzee Ali may not help him now, but it can help the one million riders and their many more passengers.

Read: Boda boda: What Kenya can learn from Rwanda

An awareness campaign in honour of Mzee Ali, who ferried passengers for three-and-a-half decades using sheer muscle power without getting involved in a single accident, can save the lives that perish on the country’s roads in boda boda mishaps every day.

The third phase of boda boda, from manual to petrol and to electric, is already here. Battery-swapping for recharging is already becoming a brisk business. There is no turning away from boda boda in an economy where roads are not being paved fast enough to reach all people’s destinations.

No wonder, boda boda has led the transport by miles into the electric era. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans have ridden on an electric bike, far more than those who have entered an electric car. If the country has so far failed to create or enforce a boda boda policy, it is about time, as this is also an opportunity to understand the coming era of electric mobility, starting with that which is already there — the bike taxi.

Mzee Ali’s spirit would certainly approve.