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For Nairobi, how the umbilical chord for mobility runs from India

Brian de Souza | Updated on July 11, 2019

Africa remains an important market for India’s motorcycle makers, especially Bajaj Auto, which is the country’s largest exporter

Brands from the stables of Bajaj and TVS are the hot favourites among the local population

There is a distinct flavour of India on Nairobi’s roads.

Motorcycle taxis from Bajaj Auto and TVS Motor dot the landscape of this Kenyan capital and it is a heady feeling for an Indian tourist to see these brands in this part of Africa.

Carrying memories back home is only natural except that the motorcycle rider is not going to cooperate too easily for a selfie. “Give me a 100 shillings (roughly ₹67),” he says matter-of-factly.

This conversation is happening just off the roundabout that leads to Uhuru (which, incidentally, means freedom in Kiswahili) Park. The local term for the motorcycle taxi is boda-boda and it is quite logical why Africa remains an important market for India’s motorcycle makers, especially Bajaj Auto, which is the country’s largest exporter.

Nairobi is a leading financial centre and one of Africa’s most congested cities. With a population of 4-5 million (about that of Chennai based on 2011 census) and just over half a million private cars, one cannot compare its traffic snarls to those of Mumbai and Delhi that rank 1 and 4 each in the Traffic Index 2018.

Mobility challenges

Without a good public transport network, Kenyans depend on the matatus, small mini buses – all Isuzus – with names like City Hoppa, that ply to all corners of the city. Besides the boda-bodas, they are the ordinary Kenyan’s main mobility choice. An average ride across town could cost KES 50 (about ₹33), and for the poor, the only option is to walk.

As the city’s authorities struggle with the challenges of mobility for the masses, several options are in the offing: a car-free day, more buses and a light transit rail. But for now, the matatus dominate. That probably explains why Indian motorcycle manufacturers have ambitious plans for growth in this market.

Many of the boda-bodas are Bajaj Boxer X125 and TVS Star models (keeping them company on the roads are some Chinese brands) imported from India as completely knocked down kits, assembled locally and then sold. Given their numbers, they are making a strong connect with riders in this market.

Interestingly, many of the boda-bodas are second-hand. In a country struggling with unemployment, those looking for self-employment can only afford reconditioned bikes. Clearly, Indian brands suit their needs perfectly and it is fair to assume that business will only grow in the coming years.

This is good news to companies like Bajaj, TVS and Japanese brands like Yamaha and Honda which will use India as an export hub for Africa. On the subject of two-wheelers, an interesting side is that as part of a US government initiative to save the lives of those suffering from HIV/Aids, Yamaha DT bikes were given to volunteers and others involved.

Indian three-wheeler brands also hold sway over Nairobi’s mobility ecosystem. In hot and humid Mombasa, it is quite a common sight to see our local autorickshaws made by TVS, Bajaj and Piaggio sway on the roads carrying people from one end of the city to another. Like the boda-bodas, they are also a cheap and convenient way to get about the port town.

Piaggio is an Italian brand but its Baramati plant in Maharashtra is its most critical three-wheeler hub worldwide especially for markets like Africa. Leonard, my driver who is taking me around the city, says that he bought a brand new Ape at KES 3,80,000 with a loan from an uncle and repays him though M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer system that has been a huge success in Kenya. Like in India, the three-wheeler is a workhorse of sorts and you see people pack them with agricultural produce or household goods.

It remains to be seen how Nairobi will tackle its mobility challenges as the pace of urbanisation increases. Small beginnings are being made in electric mobility.

Last August, EkoRent from Finland launched Nopia Ride, a full e-mobility service that could expand to other East African nations. Another start-up Kenya Knights is considering importing used Nissan Leafs and testing them on Kenyan roads.

Comparing Nairobi with any Indian city – even a tier-1 city – isn’t quite fair but the challenges remain the same. The city struggles with same issues faced in India: air pollution, health issues and traffic snarls. Nairobi is expected to have 1.35 million cars by 2030 which would still be less than half of Mumbai’s private cars today, to say nothing about two and three-wheelers.

Proper etiquettes

However, if there there is one thing that Indians can learn from Nairobi’s traffic, is that no one honks even at the 5-8 p.m. rush hour. It’s considered rude as is the case in most parts of the world.

Even India’s neighbours in Asia don’t honk as much and you naturally wonder why the country that is on its way to become the third-largest car producer in the world has somehow missed this all-important lesson in etiquette. While the sight of Indian-made motorcycles or three-wheelers can make tourists feel pleased as punch, the rude awakening happens when one factors in the overwhelming influence of China all around.

One of Nairobi’s biggest showpieces is the SGR railway that links the city to Mombasa. Built at $3.6 billion, it opened in 2017 and is Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since it attained independence in 1963.

History will tell you that over 30,000 Indian workers were recruited to build a rail line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria via Nairobi more than 100 years ago. At least 2,500 of them perished in the building of what is called the ‘Lunatic Line’.

All that is a thing of the past where India perhaps played a big role in this space but the present clearly belongs to China. The locals say this is because India has largely focussed on the IT space while the Chinese have made manufacturing their focus.

This also puts into context our own GDP component where the service sector still dominates quite unlike China where manufacturing takes a large chunk of the pie.

It is a sobering reality: China is just way ahead in the game and is already emerging as the biggest story of the 21st century. India, in contrast, still has a lot of ground to make up.

The writer handles communications at the Sujan-Continental JV

Published on July 11, 2019

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