From emergency services to security guards and food deliveries – Uganda’s famous boda boda motorcycle network has become critical in keeping the nation moving.
Tens of thousands of the motorcycles dominate the roads of Uganda, both in the cities and rural areas, and while the bikes are more fuel-efficient than cars, they emit more smog-forming hydrocarbons and air pollutants such as carbon monoxide.
As the nation stands on the edge of a transformative era of oil production, with a 1,400km pipeline and drilling complex on the banks of Lake Albert to begin pumping from 2025, young entrepreneurs are exploring new ways to reduce Uganda’s carbon footprint.
Environmental concerns have been at the heart of protests from widespread opposition to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), with the potential to pump 240,000 barrels of oil daily.
Geofrey Mutabazi, 28, founder of Karaa Africa, is hoping a new era of economic prosperity brought by the pipeline will boost business for his electric bike company.
"We are building electric bicycles for last-mile transportation and designing electric bicycle conversion kits,” said Mr Mutabazi, who employs a small team of workers at the MoTIV business hub in Kampala.
“We are working with bicycle manufacturers and importers in Africa who are losing market share to motorcycles.
“We empower them to make their bicycles electric to claw back some of that market share and also reduce some of the emissions from motorcycles.”
On average, motorcycles emit 120 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every kilometre travelled, compared to only 6g per km for an electric bike, according to the Australian Institute for Sensible Transport.
Switching last-mile delivery from Uganda’s fleet of boda boda motorbikes to electric bicycles has huge potential to reduce air pollutants, said Mr Mutabazi.
The fast-moving boda boda bikes have become the lifeblood of the nation, transporting goods, services and people around the country, quickly and efficiently.
Funding for the motorcycles often comes via private businesses, accelerating access to loans that are paid off by riders as the bikes are put to work.
A similar business model by Karaa Africa aims to get more of the $1,000 electric bikes or $500 conversion kits on to the roads.
There are cost benefits, too, with the average boda boda bike costing about $4 in fuel to travel 100km, compared to only 20 cents for an electric bike.
“If we look at the usage patterns of a rider, we look at how much range is covered in a day,” said Mr Mutabazi.
“If they do deliveries over maybe 50km or 100km a day, we design for them a battery that can give that range and a corresponding financing plan for that particular battery.
“That way they don't have to charge during the day, or lose time having to plug in and wait for the charge. It is also something they can charge at home.”
With more homes gaining access to reliable, affordable electricity resulting from the new oil production, it is hoped more people will look to switch to electric bikes.
With an average age of 17, Uganda has the world’s youngest population with 77 per cent of people under the age of 25.
The oil pipeline is opening up new opportunities, not only for entrepreneurs such as Mr Mutabazi and his Karaa Africa, but also in rural areas where most of the population live.
At the Buliisa Hub Training Centre, near the Tilenga oil production site, 200 people from the area are learning how to make personal protective equipment for oil workers.
Of those learning new skills, 95 per cent are women and 40 per cent under 25.
Onziru Volvet Ombah is an administrator at the centre, where she is employed for the first time.
“This has been the first opportunity I have had to work for myself and earn my own money,” said Ms Ombah, who has a four-year-old daughter.
“Before there was nothing for me except to farm and sell the crops, like many others.
“Now I work every day from 8am until 5.30pm, so it is regular work we did not have before.”
Uganda’s shifting fortunes borne from the controversial oil discoveries and pipeline are creating new opportunities for young people in the country to explore potential careers in industry.
Workshops and certified training programmes have been established to encourage more young Ugandans to stay in the country to work, rather than move overseas.
Before the oil was found, Rahma Nantongo, 24, an oil and gas engineering graduate of Makerere University, Kampala, said she would have looked to move to Canada or the UK for a career – but not now.
“With the way the project is progressing, it's giving us good hope for a brighter future to work here in Uganda,” she said.
“We are seeing capacity building programmes and looking at training for technical people.
“There are particular industries that have been ringfenced for participation of Ugandans specifically.
“That's a big thing considering that you're going to have direct and indirect benefit from oil.”