Did You Know | 08 Mar 2024

A Silent Revolution Riding the Bodaboda

Dodoma, the new capital of Tanzania and Dar-Es-Salaam, the old one, are familiar with the cries of" Boda-Boda..." The word and the people screaming it are part of a "silent revolution" – one that seeks to empower women not just in these two cities but in many parts of Africa.

"Boda-Boda-Boda---is a mutilated word for 'Border,' perhaps originating in Busia town in eastern Uganda. Small scale traders in the late 1980s and early 90s wanted cheap transport to ferry tradeable goods. Motorbikes came in handy. Potential hires of these motorbikes were attracted to the “boda-boda” calls, says Venkatesh Jayaraman, Managing Director of Car and General in Tanzania. Car and General is an engineering and automotive product distributor of repute, listed on the Nairobi stock exchange. The company imported its first consignment from TVS Motor in 2000. Over the past two decades, Car & General (C&G) has been the distributor of TVS products in Kenya and Tanzania.

Motorbike-taxis continue to play a big part in urban and rural mobility because they fill in for the critical last mile connectivity challenges. What is changing though is the increasing participation of women in the entire automotive value chain. Women are now driving bike-taxis, they are also assembling and selling them. Thanks to the global outlook of companies like TVS Motor and the vision and foresight of entrepreneurs like Mr. Vijay Gidoomal, Group CEO of Car & General and its Board of Directors. Together they have created conditions for women in Africa to learn, train, seek employment and then draw other women of their ilk into this ecosystem.

A study by the Department of Project Planning and Management, Tengeru Institute of Community Development, Arussha Tanzania, suggests that Bodaboda transport significantly contributes to youths' financial, personal and social assets by 57.8 per cent, 17.8 per cent and 14.4 per cent, respectively. It is a small sample but reflects the general trend in the country.

In 2024, as we celebrate International Women's Day, themed 'Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress,' TVS and Car & General are doing exactly that in Tanzania and Kenya. It is bound to have a positive domino effect on women in other parts of Africa.

So, what did CarGen and TVS get right in Tanzania? TVS continued to spark discussions, channel ideas and support the team at Car and General. C&G meanwhile created conditions within and outside its shopfloor to encourage women participation throughout the value chain. For example, C&G brought together partners like Maendelo Bank, TNGP (Tanzania Gender Network Program) and Don Bosco to launch the Pink Ride Project - a groundbreaking initiative aimed at empowering young women in Dar-Es-Salaam, in July 2023. The program provides TVS 3-Wheelers to women and even trains them before they can ride. The vehicles serve as a means of transportation and income generation for women.

Initially, Car & General only imported and sold products; even then, it employed women, but they were only in sales, administration and accounting functions. When they graduated to setting up an assembly plant for two-wheelers in Tanzania, the two teams agreed that they needed to see more women on the assembly line.

TVS Group was convinced about women empowerment through motorbikes and their contribution to the country's economy. So was C&G. "With an average GDP per capita in Tanzania of 1,163 U.S. dollars, women were an unutilized resource," says Venkatesh.

Two years in, this experiment of employing women in the motorbike assembly line at C&G is still at its nascent stage. However, it has begun to show the thick green shoots of better prospects for women in Tanzania.

The beginning was not easy. The company had to deal with a psychological battle with men, who were initially reticent to allow women in the assembly line. The women were eager but did not have the right skills. Family, fathers, husbands and men in the family were non-cooperative. "We used our experience, tradition, and my Rotary connection for help. The guidance from TVS's successes (in countries including India) also helped us to overcome every challenge to ensure women are employed in the assembly line, " shares Venkatesh about the teething problems and their solutions. Without a formal education and low-income levels, the women preferred to work on daily wages. Regular attendance was a great challenge.

Institutions like the Don Bosco Technical Institute, Dar-es-Salam, helped them by upskilling the young girls who were previously farm workers or street food vendors. The women had no idea what an assembly line was. "It is a just 30-meter-long assembly line," says Venkatesh. But that, too, was intimidating for the young Tanzanian women. However, the training and mental conditioning at Don Bosco helped.

Today, once the parts are on the conveyor line, these ladies do everything – from assembly to testing. "We have two ladies who are fully trained to test the motorcycles on the dynamometer," adds Venkatesh. They assemble about 80 to 100 motorcycles per day.

C&G was also among the first organisations to employ five women who are physically challenged but can drive three-wheelers to ferry people within the organization. This encouraged other institutions and today more than 100 physically challenged persons are driving TVS King 3-wheelers in Dar-Es-Salaam.

TVS Motor Managing Director Mr. Sudarshan Venu was so impressed with this silent transformation taking place that he advised Car and General to scale this up and empower more women across Tanzania and Kenya.

So what attracts the young women in Tanzania to join the assembly line of motorbikes of this TVS distributor? Safe, secure, encouraging working environment that promotes better utilization of their technical and innovative skills. The only easy peezy lemon squeezy feeling Venkatesh has is, "All the women who work in the assembly line tell their friends and relatives that they work for TVS (not Car and General)," he says with a smile that sums up the initial success of women empowerment experiment by the TVS - CarGen combine in Tanzania's automobile sector.