Taxi-moto safety in Kigali: a conversation with Tom Goodfellow

In Kigali, motorcycle taxis are commuters’ preferred choice of transport, since cab fares are expensive and the city has a poor mass transit system.

The city’s ubiquitous and tightly regulated taxi-motos, as they’re called, also play an important role in keeping the city safe, according to Tom Goodfellow, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom who studies governance and social processes in the urban global south. He recently published an article comparing regulation of the motorcycle taxi sector in Kampala and Kigali in the journal Comparative Politics.

The taxi-motos operate under tight safety restrictions: drivers all have helmets, jackets that display their phone numbers, registration papers and licenses. Goodfellow compares the order and relative safety of Kigali’s motos with Kampala’s chaotic, “rogue” and boisterous hoard of ‘boda-bodas’ in a recent article for African Arguments. While the nearly 100,000 boda-boda drivers in Kampala, Uganda, operate free of nearly any regulation, taxi-motos in Kigali operate under tight governmental restrictions and have a close relationship with the state security apparatus, argues Goodfellow.

Safety in the city

Despite a large portion of the population living below or near the poverty line, crime rates in Kigali are low, and violent crime is very rare. Security in Kigali is not an accident. Between the omnipresence of the Rwandan state in just about every aspect of life in the city, and the automatic-weapon toting soldiers standing on the street corners, even the pettiest of thieves has a lot to worry about.

The tightly regulated taxi-motos contribute to safety in the city too. And the relationship between the state and taxi operators has grown tight over the years. Following the 1994 genocide, large numbers of Rwandans were engaged in informal work, including thousands driving bicycles and motorcycle taxis, explains Goodfellow. Originally, the government saw this set of informal workers as a destabilizing component, “fomenting drug use, crime, and ‘disorganization,’” he says. But this changed after an attempt to ban all taxi-motos in 2006 went badly. The government then decided instead to bring this potentially volatile group of workers very close.

Since then, taxi-motos in Kigali have been heavily regulated, making rides more enjoyable and less harrowing for passengers and bringing a large number of low-income males into formal employment. On tax day, you can see hundreds of them lined up outside Rwanda’s Revenue Authority, diligently waiting to pay their taxes.

Originally all organized under a central association known as ASSETAMORWA, this large group of fairly young, low-income, otherwise unemployed, men were easily monitored and kept regularly employed.

“What was quite clear was that ASSETAMORWA was part of the architecture of governance of the city, and they would have had close relationships with police,” says Goodfellow. “You have the involvement of the state and police in the sector from the very beginning.”

Taxi-motos, he says, were sometimes even used “as an extension of the policing system: for certain crimes, the police called on ASSETAMORWA to help track down the culprit.”

A changing landscape

Nearly 10 years later, things are changing in Kigali. ASSETAMORWA devolved into several different groups of driver-cooperatives, and unaffiliated (and perhaps illegal) moto drivers are beginning to appear on Kigali’s streets.

With a growth rate of 6.2 percent , Kigali’s population is expected to reach up to 5 million by the year 2040 from just over 1 million today. Goodfellow questions whether the government will be able to maintain such tight control over a rapidly expanding sector.

New startups—Safe Boda in Kampala and Safe Moto in Kigali, which follow in the tradition of uber and allow users to order taxis with their mobile phones—are also transforming the sector by banking on passengers paying for a more secure ride. But it’s unclear how outside regulation of the sector will pan out in Kigali.

“Safe Moto could pose some sort of threat to government control of the sector,” says Goodfellow.

Kigali’s rapid transformation ensures that the moto-taxi sector will also change though it’s still unclear exactly how it will look in future.

“It’s probably going to look less like it did”, says Goodfellow. “It’s not going to turn into chaos, it’s not going to turn into Kampala. It’s too important to have a coherent view of these people who are the eyes and ears of the city.”


Katherine Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda. She writes for the AP and East African, along with other regional and international publications.

Image via wikimedia.



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