Bittersweet world of superwomen breaking through as ‘Keke’ riders

SPECIAL REPORT: Bittersweet world of superwomen breaking through as ‘Keke’ riders

When Akinbode Rafiat, mid-fifties, first conceived the idea of a transport business five years ago, it almost unsettled her marriage.

Her fashion business had earlier nosedived, while the private school teaching job she managed afterwards, with her NCE certificate, only earned her peanuts. Despite her husband’s objection, she believed her man needed support amidst harsh economic realities.

“When I first started, my husband was not supportive,” she said. 

“He informed his friends, and they wondered that if he allowed me to do the job, as a religious woman, wouldn’t I start behaving like a tout,” recounted Rafiat.

Just like the formal sector, she later got her husband’s nod to work ‘nine-to-five’ daily. “So, I went to learn the kẹkẹ business for like a month, and that was how I started the job.”

Rather than join the league of park touts, Rafiat has been nicknamed ‘Bismillah’ – a common lingo among Muslim faithful (to hand over a start of something unto God).

With her veil perfectly tied in semblance to a hijab, the over 50 years old tricyclist leaned on the driver’s seat of her three-wheeled taxis – locally called ‘Kẹkẹ’ – waiting in queue at the popular ‘Gate ’ area in Ibadan. 

Unlike Rafiat, it wasn’t really a tug of war for Abosede Odutan to get her husband’s approval. Her man already knew she likes to hustle. But before her foray into public transportation, her former hairstyle business was, to her, a waste of time. 

Bittersweet world of superwomen breaking through as ‘Keke’ riders

Women engaging in public transportation in Ibadan challenge traditional gender roles. Some of them are single mothers and widows, while many are actively married – participating in non-traditional roles to support their families. As the economic challenges intensify, they foresee difficulties for an average Nigerian household relying solely on one income stream.

According to Abosede, 44, the work is demanding and risky, but the daily income is bittersweet, helping to sustain their families. Despite the challenges, these women continue to navigate a male-dominated sector due to economic constraints.

Remarkably, women tricyclists often earn more than many traditionally ‘gainfully’ employed Nigerians. Their daily earnings range between N8,000 to N10,000 ($10 to $13), highlighting the financial significance of their contributions to their households.

“You will make good money daily, if you hustle well,” Abosede said, boastfully. “It is only someone that can’t work hard that will be complaining. Even those doing government work can’t make the money we are making, but it is not easy.”

Though Nigeria’s data agency – the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) – in its revised methodology, put the country’s unemployment rate at 4.1% for Q1 of 2023, that alone has never defined the nation’s high poverty rate, a World Bank analysis says.

Bittersweet world of superwomen breaking through as ‘Keke’ riders

Going by the 1.90 US dollars poverty threshold per day, the World Bank says nearly 12% of the world population in extreme poverty lived in Nigeria. But that’s not all, four million more Nigerians were pushed into extreme poverty in the first six months of 2023, the Washington-based institution disclosed in its recent report.

Meanwhile, recent economic and monetary policies of the Nigerian government, including petrol subsidy removal, have drastically affected the purchasing power of average Nigerians as inflation rises. 

While these policies have a multiplier effect on the employed population, those in the informal sector, including women keeping to their traditional roles –  who largely depend on average Nigerians’ purchasing power, are the worst hit. 

However, if women participated in the economy at the same level as their male counterparts, Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) could grow by 23 per cent – $229 billion – by 2025, CFR Women and Foreign Policy Program says in its new digital report.

Daring stereotypes, chaotic sector to survive 

Transport sector in Ibadan, capital of Oyo State has a long history of bloody violence, but this was known to Busayo Oyekan before joining in 2020. 

In the face of the economic meltdown, she was prepared to ditch petty-trading – traditional roles for most women in South-West Nigeria. She couldn’t continue begging relatives to support her family. Between starving in idleness and surviving in hell; hard choice must be made. So, Busayo chose bitter pills, hard to swallow.

Bittersweet world of superwomen breaking through as ‘Keke’ riders

The 43-year-old, popular at the motor park along Sawmill in Ibadan, was introduced through cheering and hailing of lively park boys.

Despite being described as the “strongest,”, she once considered opting out due to violence inherent in the business, stress and harassment. But because she got her tricycle on hire purchase for N2.7 million ($3,340), and her entire savings went in as a deposit; no going back.

“I have been beaten on this job before; Operation Bust once slapped me. I should be older than that boy by at least 20 years. He slapped me heavily. 

“A passenger once tore my clothes before because of ‘change’,” she recounted sadly.

Meanwhile, Ibadan — the largest city in West Africa — with a population of almost four million, is considered the political epicenter of South-West. 

A series of media reports from 2011 till date show no fewer than 20 people have been killed, while several others injured in park union clashes. 

These repeated clashes in the transport sector are linked to power tussles and influence actors command as park chairman or executive members.

Bittersweet world of superwomen breaking through as ‘Keke’ riders

Esther Christopher, 44, is a victim of such power tussles in motor parks. She’s just two years into the job but has already found herself at a crossroad. Her only offence was rejecting advances from a ‘motor park boss’.

“For most of us doing this job, people think that we don’t have husbands at home. So they approach us with nonsense requests.

“Most of our men would say they want to marry us,” said Esther.

“There was a time that one of our leaders proposed to me, but I turned down the request. He even fought with me, saying he would not allow me work.” 

This 44-year-old tricyclist found herself behind the wheels because her private school teaching job was a metaphor for ‘painfully employed’. Two years into this non-traditional role, she doesn’t own a ‘Keke’ yet. Esther rides for someone whom she must pay a “delivery” of N5,000 from whatever she makes daily.

For Rafiat, Esther’s experience is not strange. Many people label women (in non-traditional roles) as those who revolted against their husbands. According to her, some people would go to the extreme by not patronising them just because they see a woman in the driver’s seat.

‘Tyres roll, driver chop’: Age not a barrier 

Olayinka Onabanjo, 64, was a teacher with the Oyo State Teaching Service Commission (TESCOM) in the 1980s when she forayed into public transport. She learnt driving just so she wouldn’t continue trekking to school. However, her husband’s double-cabin car was a raw motivation. 

“Anytime I finish school, I will use it to transport cassava flakes and other goods, especially on weekends. So it got to a point that I really enjoyed doing it,” she said.

“This made me purchase one bus at that time. I normally used the bus to transport footwear from Ogunpa to Ijebu Ode. And sometimes, I do take them to Benin and Onitsha if I see anyone willing to payy charges.”

The Ogun-born transporter, popularly known as ‘Grandma’, was advised to quit interstate commercial transport. In 2013, she found a new love within the sector.

Despite making enough to own some tricycles she doesn’t ride, Grandma is still not tired. She dominates others with her brute strength to ferry loads instead of passengers. 

According to her, more women are trained and ready to join the trend, but with the rising inflation, getting a tricycle on hire purchase for N3.7 million ($4,713) scares them.