Grit, social media elevates EAC cycling event to global audience

Saturday October 09 2021

Cyclists drawn from East Africa Community member States arrive in Nakuru County on August 15, 2021, during the fourth edition of the Great Africa Cycling Safari, a two-month-long 6,000 kilometres East African tour, to raise awareness of climate change and the need for regional integration. The tour, flagged off on August 1 at the Askari Monument in Dar es Salaam, was scheduled to pass through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and end on September 25 at the East African Community headquarters, in Arusha. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG.


Riders’ grit and endurance in a very challenging terrain saw the Great African Cycling Safari gain a global following, thanks to social media, which gave real time updates of an epic tour that covered just under 5,000 kilometres through difficult terrain.

At least half a dozen stages in hill country of Uganda’s southwest, Rwanda and Burundi were the riders’ nightmare – long, rough, off-road and elevations rising to 2,364 metres above sea level.

Then there were five stages in the Dodoma area in Tanzania where riders were up against headwinds and were blinded by clouds of dust as they pedalled away from ruts on dirt roads on a mainly flat terrain.

But each update from the challenging terrain that was posted on social media brought more traffic on the Cycling Safari Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter, according to Canadian Scott Rowswell, a retired communication and IT expert, who helped with the routing of the Cycling Safari from his house in Canada, and also monitored the event’s social media activity.

He said although many of the followers are mostly cyclists from East Africa, there is evidence of a growing following from Europe, North America and the Middle East.

“These are cyclists that are interested in distance cycling and touring,” he said. “This group likes rides that are challenging. So I see spikes on posts that describe difficult stages especially those in hill country like Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.”


“Another group seem to like the idea of really tough multi-day rides like the tour tests ‘grit,’” he noted.

One such technically challenge was stage 22 of the tour from Kihihi to Ruhija, in Uganda on August 26.

“This is for the history books. Almost constant uphill of 197km, almost all on dirt road, with almost 10,000m of ascent and descent. Most stages of Tour de France aren’t this difficult,” reads a post on the expedition’s Instagram page.

To compare, this year’s Tour de France – the world’s most famous cycling event – stage 15 Port d’Envalira through the Pyrenees-Orienteles area, had a maximum elevation of 2,408 metres, but the stage was only 11 kilometres, a piece of cake, Ugandan cyclist Peter Ssali said.

Challenging stages

“Yes it’s been tough and only the strongest have survived,” posted John Balongo, the Cycling Safari expedition director.

Ssali, 24, who runs a bike spare parts shop in Kampala, and on his second tour with the Cycling Safari, said the Bwindi area of southwestern Uganda and Kwa Mtoro dirt roads in the Dodoma area, Tanzania were some of the toughest terrains he has had to tackle.

“These were the most challenging stages because of the rough roads which my bicycle couldn’t handle,” he said.

He said they were pleasantly surprised by the increase in the number of followers this year, especially online.

“We have no magic. It’s the usual promotions on our social media platforms. We don’t even pay for them, everything is organic,” he explained.

The other factor driving the online global following is that the event is a form of adventure-based tourism, and people interested in related activities such as cycling and hiking are many and from around the globe, and are always on the lookout for such events especially those marketed digitally. It is easy to follow them.

The cycling tour ended in Arusha last week, nearly two months after flag off tour having covered 4,936km, in 194 hours and 48 minutes in 55 days through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. It is yet to be seen if it achieved its objectives of promoting East African Community unity and sensitise on climate change mitigation. On the last day, the tour had a combined followership of more than 20,000 on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, according to Rowswell.

He says East African viewers on Facebook make up 65 percent of the total, with Kenyan followers being almost 50 percent of the total, while Europe and North America are 15 percent each, and Asia carrying most of the balance.

Kenya, apparently dominates because it has a vibrant and large cycling community, but also being among the first countries the cyclists toured, while the growth in European and North American views seems to have been driven by posts to groups in those areas.

Analysis of social media profiles shows the global following is driven by East Africans in the diaspora. By September 17, the EAC Cycling page had reached 7,054 people.

In total, more than 1,000 riders took part, but only 26 cyclists completed the entire tour.