NAIROBI, March 5 (Xinhua) -- Collins Wamalwa, a motorbike taxi rider was sitting on his machine parked along Moi Avenue in Kenya's capital Nairobi, glued onto his smartphone.
One would think that the rider was on social media or just browsing the internet to while time away, but he was checking the app he uses to get customers.
Soon, the mobile phone app informed Wamalwa of a customer seeking his services. He got the number and called the customer -- a lady, and minutes later, he was on the road ferrying her some 2km away.
Wamalwa is among a growing list of motorbike taxi riders (boda boda) in the east African nation who are using the hailing apps to get customers as the number of people engaging in the trade commonly known as boda boda surges.
There are close to a million motorbike taxi operators across Kenya, with the number continuing to rise every month, according to the Motorcycle Assemblers Association of Kenya.
The high number has stiffened competition in the industry with some riders, especially in the capital Nairobi, idling for hours without getting customers.
However, those who have embraced the motorbike taxi-hailing apps are standing out from the crowd as customers in search of safer and affordable rides turn to the apps.
"I had initially resisted the app but realized operating outside it was no longer tenable if I was to survive in the industry," Michael Kariuki, a motorbike rider in Kitengela on the outskirts of Nairobi said.
It has been seven months since Kariuki enrolled with Taxify, currently one of the leading motorbike and vehicle taxi hailing apps in the east African nation.
The others are Uber, Little Ride, Mondo Ride and Juu Boda, with the last two dealing exclusively with motorbikes.
"In the past, I would sometimes wait for up to an hour without getting a customer but with the app, I get one as soon as I drop another," said Kariuki, who everyday operates between Bellevue, and Westlands, on the south and west of Nairobi respectively, before returning to Kitengela.
Not many people use the app in Kitengela, but in South B and Westlands, the customers are many thanks to traffic jams, he said. His customers include office workers rushing for meetings, students going to class or people going to deliver items.
The app charges 0.50 dollars for about a kilometer, which is lower as those who don't use the app charge 0.80 dollars or 1 dollar. However, according to Kariuki, the many rides one gets fills up the void.
"Some boda boda riders shun the apps thinking that they are expensive because one must be online always to get customers but internet costs have fallen considerably which favors us," said John Wafula, another rider who uses the app.
Wafula said 20 shillings (0.2 U.S. dollars) worth of data bundles is enough for a day, with the amount being negligible compared to the money one makes.
"I buy 100 megabytes (MB) of data bundles at 0.20 dollars and get an additional 100MB free from the telecom. The 200MB is more than what I need for the taxi-hailing services and even to browse the internet to read news," he said.
Besides a smartphone and internet bundles, one must also invest in a power bank to stay online hours on end, he offered. A power bank goes for between 50 dollars and 100 dollars.
It is estimated that at least 100,000 riders are using the various hailing apps, according to Boda Boda Safety Association of Kenya.
In a recent interview, Kevin Mubadi, the chairman of the organization, which runs the Juu Boda, said the apps are helping to structure and regulate the industry, with more riders taking them up.
The motorbike taxi-hailing apps, according to Bernard Mwaso, a consultant with Edell IT Solutions in Nairobi, are the future of the industry.
"With millions of Kenyans relying on the transport every day, this is a big industry. Some people currently have contacts of specific riders who they use but what happens if they are not there? This is where the apps come in because you are also sure of whom you are dealing with since riders are vetted," he said.