Why we need the Busia border spirit
THE name ‘Boda boda’ is synonymous to cycle taxis (both motorized and bicycles) in many parts of East Africa, especially Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (in Rwanda we call them motos).
It originated from the small border town of Busia. Small traders in this Kenya-Uganda frontier town (back in the late 1980’s to early 90’s), needed cheap transport to ferry goods (mainly cooking oil, soaps and other consumer goods from Kenya to Uganda and second hand clothes in the opposite direction).
Motorbikes came in handy as cheap, convenient means for ferrying the business people and their wares from one border to the other, hence the name boda boda (border to border).
There are two Busias actually, on either side of the border. The difference between Busia Kenya and Busia Uganda might only be in the countries’ names really, and even that does not get very far.
No town captures the essence of the need for a Federation of East Africa like Busia. Not long ago there were two Awori brothers from Busia; Moody and Aggrey, one being a senior politician on the one side of the border and another, on the other side.
Moody was the vice-president of the Republic of Kenya whilst at the same time his younger brother Aggrey was an opposition leader (and later a cabinet minister) in the Republic of Uganda. Two simple twists of faith would have given the two countries literally fraternal presidents.
That Busia border is an interesting place with fascinating business history. It is one of East Africa’s busiest borders. As you come to the frontier, no matter what time, you find small-scale business people selling water, soda, juices biscuits and all and, of course, the delicious chapati and roasted chicken (the chicken is skewed in such a way that it looks crucified!).
Then there is the Rolex (nothing to do with the watch, it is an egg omelet sandwiched in a chapati).
But it is not about the wares, it is the business spirit and philosophy that catches your imagination. They come to you vibrantly and the service is quick. You don’t have the country’s currency? It is no problem, they are flexible, and will take the other country’s cash.
One of the best things one can do for herself or himself and Rwanda is to learn and improve. It is the surest way of ensuring a better future for ourselves.
There are no limits as to where at what you can learn from. In this case, if you compare this to our restaurants that will not have food ready at 3p.m and when you place an order you have to wait for ‘quarante-minuits’(forty minutes) which will be one and a half hours – the lesson is clear.
Compare it to a Kigali Bus Service crew who would rather not pick up a passenger if they have to look for Rwf750 change because the customer has a Rwf1000 note and the ride costs Rwf250 and you will see the drift. We need a Busia border spirit!
The Busia border spirit has a historical perspective to it. Trade was not always so liberalised.
In fact, not too long ago there were strict rules against trade. But trade always thrived. Under the late Idi Amin, Ugandan coffee crossed the borders and was sold off in Mombasa auctions.
This magendo (smuggling) was called chepkube and it was mainly due to challenges of doing business in a war-torn environment that made Kenya a viable option. Business has always gone on here.
And it is only logical; after all, each of the countries is the other’s major trading partner. Point is, in matters business, politics needs to listen to the business sector.
If East Africa towns were to share business best practices, this small town would have a lot to teach and share. We should let the business sector, especially SMEs, and not government bureaucrats, technocrats and other honchos call the shots on matters business? The small-scale businesses ‘get it’. We need to embrace the Busia border spirit.
Sam Kebongo is a director at Serian Ltd, and teaches entrepreneurship.
Contact email: sam.kebongo[at]gmail.com