In May I arrived at the Kigali International Airport to catch a flight, and at the counter, there were about six sporting fellows with massive bags and fancy containers piled to their shoulders.
They were heading home after battling in the week-long Tour du Rwanda.
Probably now the region’s premier bicycle race, it started way back in 1988 basically as little more than a village thing. It got a series of steroid shots and was promoted to the international cycling calendar in 2008.
Spanish rider Cristian Rodriguez, who rides for Total Direct Energie, won the tour. Rodriguez, though, really didn’t win the race. He won the trophy.
Like motor racing, international cycling moves around with a lot of cargo. The winner here seemed to be RwandAir, which was pocketing the cash from ferrying the sports cargo.
Just over a month later, at the end of June, the World Rally Championship (WRC) returned to Kenya after a 19-year absence.
Thousands of Kenyans — and non-Kenyans — took off for the bushes of Naivasha, where the race was being run, with President Uhuru Kenyatta, too, being espied among the crowds watching the spectacle.
French driver Sébastien Ogier, who has seven WRC championships under his racing suit, bagged victory.
But here, too, Ogier wasn’t the ultimate winner. It was a major destination sales victory for Kenya. Among other things, the Safari Rally Kenya 2021 was the most-watched WRC event ever on Facebook, with 31.8 million impressions —the highest figure in the championship's history.
The Tour du Rwanda and WRC Safari Rally Kenya 2021 represent a multitrend development: the mainstreaming of what, until recently, had been marginal sports; the globalisation of previously significant but local sporting events; and an emerging sporting tradition of a youthful and fast-growing urban African population who learnt to play video games on their parents’ mobile phones before they went to kindergarten school.
Social media is also driving it, with demand for new and exotic places for Facebook and Instagram pages.
Thus, some of the social media posts of WRC drivers gushing about antelopes and dik dik dashing in front of their speeding cars as they came round a bend, went viral.
It has also come together in a hyper-charged attention economy, and those who get it right, will in the years to come make a fortune.
If you have a national airline, then don’t spend a lot of your money wooing passengers. Establish an international race. Africa is the only continent that doesn’t have a Formula One (F1) or a MotoGP race.
F1 is looking to return to the continent. Whoever will snag it, will have a big pay day.
In this social and urban revolution, a new type of African has also emerged. A friend who’s high up in a major Nairobi company doesn’t drive. He cycles. His company has a generous car loan policy.He applied for a vehicle. It wasn’t for a car, but one of those expensive bicycles with twenty-something gears.
The HR people thought he was nuts. The policies had nothing about a loan for bicycle.
In the end, he got his bicycle. These new Africans are strange. Soon, however, they will be the standard.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]