Platform Politics and Silicon Savannahs: The rise of on-demand logistics and mobility in Nairobi and Kigali

Kigali and Nairobi have been dubbed ‘silicon savannahs’, celebrated for their adoption of smart city programmes and projects (Rosenberg & Brent, 2020; Graham & Mann, 2013). Since 2019, these cities have seen a huge increase in the use of motorcycles – called boda in Kenya and moto in Rwanda – for commuting, deliveries, and micro-logistics linked to various digital platforms. This rise has been enabled primarily by the proliferation of mobile phone-based applications that allow motorcycle-taxi riders to join digital platforms and connect with businesses and customers. This trend intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic when regulations limited urban movement.

The growth of platform-enabled two-wheel logistics is having a dramatic effect on mobility systems in cities, shaping how people access goods and services in real time. Despite this, there is little academic research on the consequences of this phenomenon in African cities or the extent of its uptake. This gap, in part, stems from the difficulty of studying these rapidly evolving systems and practices. In response, the overarching objective of this research was to understand how urban mobility – particularly the use of motorcycles – is being reconfigured by the introduction of platform-based systems for two-wheel paratransit sectors in African cities. We focus specifically on the platforms and dynamics emerging around motorcycle mobility and logistics within Nairobi (Kenya) and Kigali (Rwanda). However, there is arguably wider applicability to paratransit in many African cities where motorcycle taxis play or will be playing a role in commuter movement and on-demand logistics. These cases provide valuable insights into the rise of the platformisation of motorcycle taxis in African cities, as well as the lack of coherent regulation at this important urban interface.

It is important to note that this report is primarily interested in what is taking place in African cities. While maintaining a critical eye on these dynamics, critique of the rise of urban platforms – and the associated financial and labour relations which are, in part, driving it – is not the main function of this piece. Neither were we able to access quantitative data (e.g. transaction data) from the platforms. There remains ample scope to apply other lenses to these dynamics and to apply mixed methods. However, for this research, we focused on developing a rich and textured understanding of what is happening in Nairobi and Kigali. This orientation aligns with a commitment to a southern urban perspective of African cities, which calls for a fine-grained approach to urban phenomena without dissolving specificities and singularities into too broad categories of analysis developed theoretically or otherwise. The report is structured as follows:

Part 2: The burning platform situates the research within current debates and discourse around smart cities and platform urbanism, paying particular attention to urban Africa. This section also introduces the key terms and concepts that inform the research and the report, as well as the methodology we followed to undertake the research.

Part 3: Nairobi, Kenya introduces the research conducted in Nairobi, providing information on the mobility ecosystem, and introducing two case studies: Uber (UberBODA, Uber Lite, Uber Eats, Uber Connect) and GoBEBA.

Part 4: Kigali, Rwanda introduces the research conducted in Kigali, providing information on the mobility ecosystem, and introducing two case studies: Vuba and YegoMoto.

Part 5: Emerging themes and insights draws on findings from the two cases and focuses on: COVID-19 and the rise of platformisation of motorcycles; algorithmic and analogue adaptation; super-apps; regulatory regimes and governance gaps; and planning for reconfiguring business processes.

In Part 6: Conclusion we identify new areas of research