The ‘apps’ and downs of public transport in the EAC region

Transport in East Africa is one of the topics that attract my interest easily. This is mainly because movement of people and goods has always been one of the core pillars of the whole East African integration agenda pushed by our leaders.

I am sure you have noted the glamour each time any of them launches something to do with transport across the borders. We have seen the launching of One Stop Border Posts, expansion of sea ports and of course the Standard Gauge Railway.

When it comes to water transport, there seems to be a level of neglect and so we tend not to see much of that in the press until there is some bad news. Air transport seems to be one sector where unity is not even anticipated. Each one wants a piece of the sky cake. Currently Kenya Airways and RwandAir are the bulls in the fight. Air Tanzania is picking altitude while Uganda Airlines is preparing to buy some new birds to join the race while Air Burundi is no more.

While Kenya Airways seems to be finding its footing again and RwandAir slowly expands, Ethiopian Airlines remains the big boss in the wider East African region. It is also the only one that is actually profitably run. I sometimes wonder whether it would be better to have an East African airline that was considered a domestic airline in all the EAC nations and thus had cheaper operational costs and tickets. Only time will tell how it all plays out.

It is however on the roads that so much seems to be happening. The heavy rains have pounded the roads and made travelling in the region quite problematic. In some places the rivers burst their banks and bridges have been washed away. We’ve also seen roads being cut off by mudslides or simply sinking away as in the case on the Kabale to Katuna road and the Gatuna to Kigali road a short while earlier.

The damage on the Kabale to Kigali section has forced heavy trucks to divert to the Mirama hills border crossing at Kagitumba which unlike Gatuna, is a One Stop Border Post. For some reason the construction work aimed at turning Gatuna into a One Stop Border Post has since stalled and yet the human traffic it handles keeps growing. Sometimes it can be chaotic when you get there at the peak arrival of buses. Woe unto you if it is also raining.

It is not all gloom though; it is impressive that cross border road transport has improved with more comfortable coaches on the roads. The quantity and quality of buses has greatly improved over the years. Some have even adopted modern technology to ease the ticketing process. It is an impressive trend that shows we can indeed improve the way we do things.

In Kigali, the public transport experience has greatly improved since the adoption of Tap and Go cards by AC Group. Interestingly, Nairobi was the first out of the blocks as far as employing technology in public transport with the Google backed Beba cards that worked with Android phones. Other cards later came up but as Miguna Miguna would say, it appears the matatu ‘cartels’ killed off the cards.

Other chaotic transport systems like the cab and Boda Boda business are now facing what I would call a surge of discipline from app based players. Last week I used a Boda Boda (motorcycle taxi) in Kampala that is affiliated to UberBoda. Uber joined Taxify and Safe Boda to not only get the money from the sector but also restore order. If you have used Boda Bodas in Kampala you know that if you need a helmet as a passenger then you have to use the app based Boda Bodas.

It now cool to hangout and when it is time to leave one just hails a cab or a Boda Boda instead of begging for a lift from friends. The order that city council authorities and traffic police have failed to oversee among the Boda Bodas in Kampala is now being brought back by the Boda Boda hailing apps that even allow cashless payment systems.

It is now common to hear Kampala people amused by the fact that a Boda Boda can respect traffic lights! The future looks bright for public transport although a lot remains. We also need lessons from Dar on how to establish and run a Rapid Bus Transit system. We need to sort out traffic jams that are killing our productivity.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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