Eradicating Poverty

Inspiring Change through Song

Boda Boda story header

It was nighttime, just outside the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Lutakome Imran Kigongo was headed home on his motorcycle when he was stopped by police, which had him worried. This was no normal night. It was during the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda, and authorities had established a 7 p.m. curfew, requiring all drivers to stay off the road.

Officers in the country had already locked up several people while enforcing the curfew, and now the young law student found himself apprehended for violating that same government order. Though the police didn’t draw their weapons on Lutakome, they did impound his motorcycle, extort him for bribes, and levied a steep fine of 40,000 shillings (about US$10), which he’d have to pay after visiting the police station the next day.

Lutakome’s worry turned to anger when he went to collect his motorbike and learned the authorities had changed the original charge of riding after curfew to driving without a license. From his studies in the university, Lutakome knew the police couldn’t keep his bike since he had proof of ownership, so after going to the bank and paying the fine, he tried to reclaim his motorbike. Even with the proper documents in hand and the fine paid, the officers wanted more.

“Almost everyone that I was asking needed a bribe,” said Lutakome. “‘Where is my soda, young man?’ they demanded,” using a local slang term for a bribe.

Lutakome knew his experience was far from unique, and something had to change.

Lutakome with boda boda drivers
Lutakome with boda boda drivers

No Easy Ride

Offering rides and deliveries on motorcycle taxis, known locally as “boda bodas,” has become a popular way for Ugandans to earn a basic living and climb out of poverty. Compared to the long-term investment of traditional agricultural work, riders can see immediate returns from their labor and more easily support their families.

Unfortunately, a five-year boda boda driver license in Uganda costs around US$98, and most riders would have to save for six months to get one. As a result, riders are often forced to work outside of the system to survive, making them vulnerable to harassment and outsized punishment from police, including having their vehicles confiscated. In a survey, Ethical African Organization found that over 84 percent of boda boda riders have no driver’s license and over 94 percent have no insurance or tax registration.

After owning a boda boda himself, Lutakome saw firsthand the struggles these riders face. Along his motorbike commutes to Nkumba University, he would meet, share meals with, and learn about the everyday routines of the commercial boda boda riders.

Lutakome’s own run-in with the police shocked him into thinking about what he could do to help boda boda riders. “At that moment, you can’t do anything,” Lutakome said. “Those who have connections and can make quick bribes for them, they are able to be released.”

Lutakome’s exposure to the challenges faced by these entrepreneurs, and the idea for a solution, came from participating in leadership and organizational training provided by Students For Liberty and Action for Liberty and Economic Development. He was inspired by thinkers like Ayn Rand, Eamonn Butler, and Tom G. Palmer, and wanted to put ideas that would advance individual freedom in front of Uganda’s policymakers. Together with his friends, he launched a free-market think tank that they named Ethical African Organization.

Thinking Outside the Box

Lutakome knew that less restrictive policies would create economic opportunities and reduce the exploitation of boda boda riders. He also knew that to gain the attention of lawmakers, he first had to make the issue resonate with everyday Ugandans. Because it can be dangerous to use common methods of outreach in Uganda, such as encouraging protests or otherwise directly criticizing the government, Lutakome had to think creatively about how to make people care about boda boda riders’ rights in a way that was both organic and non-threatening to the government.

The Ethical African team decided music was their most powerful tool. They worked with a local pop artist called Batapa to write and record a song and create an accompanying music video that described the daily experiences and challenges faced by riders. Once they began to distribute the video, it quickly went viral.

“The feeling of the song is the cry. It penetrates the hearts of those who are listening,” Lutakome said. “If there is an issue that is being addressed through music, it creates an environment that brings attention to that particular thing.” Lutakome believes the catchy tune and cries of “help a boda man work” are reaching constituents and policymakers alike.

Boda Boda riders
Boda boda riders at an Ethical African Organization event

With their music creating awareness on radios and playlists across the country, Ethical African Organization drafted a policy proposal aimed at shortening the boda boda rider’s registration process and lowering prohibitive fees. They sent their policy to the prime minister, key ministries, and legislators.

“They know what we hope for and what we are fighting for,” Lutakome said. “They are aware of these policy proposals so that they can be given priority as early as possible.”

Advocacy for the boda boda riders is ongoing, and Lutakome is determined to strengthen his organization to make an even larger impact. His participation in Atlas Network Academy’s Think Tank 360 course enabled him to interact with other freedom-minded leaders and improve his strategy.

“Now we need to use these skills to advance our objectives in the boda boda project,” he said. Since the training, Lutakome has prepared a strategic analysis of the boda boda project and planned new ways to use his team’s strengths and creativity to combat government overreach.

Lutakome says Ugandans can’t tolerate more violence as a pathway to change. The boda boda rider song is a symbol of his organization’s belief in peaceful advocacy and the democratic process. Lutakome’s efforts, propelled by principles of freedom, are spreading hope for a prosperous future for Uganda.

Lutakome delivers a Cornerstone Talk at Atlas Network's Africa Liberty Forum 2023, focusing on the challenges faced by boda boda riders and how his organization is working to implement solutions