At least 5000 members of Gulu City Boda boda Association have resorted to vending charcoal to supplement their reduced earnings following the national lockdown instituted due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Gulu City Bodaboda Association, an umbrella organization of all boda boda associations in Gulu district, has 15, 000 members.
When instituting the lockdown in late March, President Yoweri Museveni barred all passenger transport, including boda bodas, as one way to combat the spread of COVID-19. Three times the restrictions have been renewed, the latest being the May 18 extension, by 21 days, of the ban on passenger transportation by boda bodas.
Although the presidential directives allowed bodas to engage in cargo transportation, many in the trade say they have seen their incomes shrink significantly as most of their income came from carrying passengers.
Paul Ocen, a member of Layibi Railway Crossing Boda boda Association said that before the lockdown, he earned a daily minimum of Shs 30,000 from carrying passengers, luggage, transporting children to and from school, and sometimes renting out his motorcycle.
“Parents of four children had hired me to transport their children to and from school daily, and I would be paid Shs 40,000 per child at the end of each month,” Ocen said.
“This money was consistent and greatly supplemented my daily earnings. When schools were closed, my earnings dropped to less than Shs 20,000 daily. After the lockdown was announced they reduced even further. Now I can hardly raise Shs 5,000 a day,” Ocen lamented.
Faced with a seemingly open-ended moratorium on a key component of their business, thousands of boda boda riders in Gulu Municipality have opted for an unlikely way to diversify their business: sell charcoal.
In order to supplement his income, Ocen turned to buying charcoal from neighbouring Omoro district, and displaying it at his boda boda stage in order to attract interested passersby.
“I make a profit of between 5,000-10,000 shillings per sack. It is a gamble, sometimes clients come and take it immediately, sometimes it takes two to three days, but it helps me get by,” he said.
For David Layung, one of 1200 members of Lacor Main Gate Boda Boda Association, the charcoal business has been a revelation.
Together with more than 10 members of his association, Layung joined the charcoal vending business immediately after the President instituted a lockdown.
“When the lockdown was announced, I had just married a wife. This time having food at home is a must, unlike before when I could skip meals if I had not made money. So, I ventured into the charcoal trade in order to earn something extra,” he said.
Layung buys a sack of charcoal from Nwoya district at 20,000 shillings and resells it at Shs 30,000-35,000.
“Each day I sell three sacks of charcoal and make at least Shs 30,000 in profits after deducting expenses on things like fuel or minor motorcycle repairs,” he said.
“The business is not bad. I have resolved that even if the lockdown is lifted, I will remain in the charcoal business because I feel it is better than carrying people,” he said.
Simon Wokorach the Chairperson, Gulu City Boda Boda Association said many boda boda riders joined the charcoal business in order to avoid spending all the money they had saved before the lockdown.
”Majority of the riders who have ventured into buying charcoal for resale have stay-home wives, and therefore have to work tooth and nail to earn something daily,” he said.
He added that 550 boda boda stages within Gulu Municipality were strategically opened in front of shops, bars, hotels, lodges, and other business establishments. But since all these businesses have been halted, the clientele of the boda riders has reduced by at least 80 percent, which is why many are now selling charcoal.
Not everyone is convinced that selling charcoal is a profitable venture though.
Walter Olanya, a member of Layibi Railway Crossing Boda boda Association in Layibi Division, said that unlike other members of his stage who are now selling charcoal, he sat down and calculated the profits and found it not worth his while.
“If someone gave me an order I would do it. But travelling to the village to bring charcoal and put it at the stage is time-consuming. It takes one or two days before it is bought. I feel it ties my capital,” he reasoned.
With most boda boda charging between Shs 1000-2000 to transport luggage within the municipality, Olanya has seen his earnings reduce significantly during the lockdown.
“During the pre-COVID period, I could earn at least Shs 30,000 per day, but now I would call it a miracle if I got Shs 10.000 a day. It is difficult to get four or five people daily sending a boda boda to carrying their luggage,” Olanya said.
For many of the boda riders resorting to creative ways to supplement their income, making more money is not the only motivation. In some cases, the very survival of their marriages is at stake.
According to Wokorach, several members of the association have been facing increased domestic violence from wives who feel they are not doing enough to provide for the family.
“At least 12 members of the association say their wives left them for failing to buy necessities. Several others have reported that they are being threatened by their wives daily with separation or divorce. So, our people are working round the clock to keep their families together,” he said.
Wokorach said the association leaders contacted the Gulu District COVID-19 task to provide the most vulnerable boda boda riders some food aid.
These, he said, include those whose motorcycles have been taken by owners, those who earned by hiring motorcycles from fellow riders (road toll), and those whose wives are threatening to leave them for failing to provide for the family.
“On Monday last week, 327 boda boda riders were given food which included 5kgs of beans and 10 kgs of maize flour each,” Wakorach said, adding that a total of 1000 vulnerable boda boda riders were set to benefit from the aid.