KAMPALA, UGANDA — It’s early afternoon, and a cluster of motorcycle taxi operators, including Ashraf Muvabulaya, are perched by a busy roadside in Wakiso district, just outside of Kampala, the capital. They hoot at every passerby, hoping for a potential customer.
Muvabulaya, 33, hasn’t had a customer in nearly an hour. At one point, he beckons a man who is walking past the motorcycle taxis, better known as boda bodas. The customer hops on, and the two roar off.
The client is only Muvabulaya’s seventh passenger of the day. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he would have at least 10 by lunchtime. But these days, an evening-to-morning curfew has derailed Muvabulaya and tens of thousands of boda boda operators — many of them young people who now grapple both with coronavirus restrictions and the prospect of plunging back into a job market that historically has held scarce opportunities.
Uganda’s boda boda industry, which is unregulated, employs an estimated 250,000 people in Kampala alone, and drivers themselves say that number grows every year as formal work is hard to find.
The government has sought to curb the coronavirus by, among other things, imposing a curfew that now goes from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. Motorcycle taxis are restricted from working 6 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., which includes some of their busiest — and most profitable — hours.
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda
Many boda boda operators are in their 20s. Even many who are now in their 30s started in their 20s. That’s not a coincidence: The official unemployment rate for Ugandans ages 18 to 30 is 13%, compared to 9% for the rest of the population, according to a 2019 Uganda Bureau of Statistics report.
In Uganda’s presidential election last January, main opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, made solutions to youth unemployment a centerpiece of his candidacy. President Yoweri Museveni himself has warned: “Unemployment is the main problem affecting the youth in the country and the entire world.”
The United Nations’ International Labour Organization reports that in 2019 in Africa, young people accounted for more than 35% of the continent’s joblessness. And last year, the organization found, “more than one in five of all young Africans have neither a job nor are they participating in education or training.”
In Uganda, the pandemic has heightened concerns over jobless youth.
“More youths and, indeed, more Ugandans will fall into poverty and the GDP will fall consequently as a result of these restrictions,” says Fred Muhumuza, an economist and lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala. “We cannot rule out the possibility of increased crime, since it has been associated with poverty.’’
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Historically, causes of youth unemployment throughout the continent and in Uganda specifically have ranged from a high population growth rate — the country is one of the world’s youngest — to education gaps and a lack of employable skills.
The government has come up with initiatives to curb youth unemployment, including linking job seekers to potential employers, says Isaiah Masiya, head of internal employment with the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. The ministry also has launched a program that allows young people to borrow funds for income-generating activities.
Samson Ongom, 24, became a boda boda operator two years ago. A university graduate and resident of Wakiso district, he first worked as a bank teller, but grew frustrated because he felt that taxes were eating up too much of his paycheck.
He turned to the motorcycle taxi business where, before the coronavirus, he earned up to 1.2 million Ugandan shillings (about $338) per month. The pandemic has sliced his wages by about one-third.
He says he would like to stick with boda bodas because it’s a business in which “we are able to take home all our money. I can now do more things than I was doing when I was working in the bank.”
On a typical pre-pandemic day, motorcyclists clogged and criss-crossed the streets of Kampala, competing for space with other motorists. It was not unusual for boda boda drivers to zoom past cars and trucks to get customers to their destinations. The motorcyclists frequently ended up in accidents.
After the curfew, their numbers nosedived during Kampala’s rush hours. Only a few braved the wrath of the police.
Muvabulaya says he has occasionally violated the curfew, to his regret.
“The police have turned us into their plantation from which they pluck money all the time,” says Muvabulaya, who estimates that the pandemic has cut his daily profits by half. “I have been arrested twice for violating the curfew. Even the little money I had saved that day was taken away.”
Luke Owoyesigire, deputy police spokesperson for the Kampala Metropolitan Police, says boda boda drivers with complaints can go to the police standards unit. Police arrest about 200 of them a day in Kampala for violating the curfew, he says.
Julius Kisembo, 34, a boda boda driver in Wakiso district, has done this work for five years and is married with three children. He scoffs at the coronavirus restrictions, which he says have withered his income by half.
Desperate, he has asked his parents to send him food from upcountry every weekend. “People in markets are so crowded, but they don’t get the virus,” he says. “They should also leave us to work till late.”
To trim expenses, Muvabulaya buys cheaper food for his wife and their two children. His savings have vanished. Like many boda boda drivers, he carries debt he took on to purchase his motorcycle. Now he can’t pay the required installments of 70,000 shillings a week (about $19), which means he faces a potentially harrowing fate: He may have to give up his bike.