Getting around in the Rwandan capital Kigali is best done by “moto” – or motorcycle – a form of transportation common in countries in East Africa.
Motorbikes serve as taxis, zooming between cars often in breakneck fashion, bringing passengers and their luggage from point A to B.
Although countries such as Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have different names for the form of transport, motos are ever-present in each.
But in Rwanda, the profession of moto driver has been dominated by men, not only leading to potentially dangerous moments for women using the motos, but also excluding them from gaining economic power.
“When we started this project, there were no female moto drivers. So I went out to look for women for this project,” Sandrine Nikuze told Al Jazeera.
Nikuze works for SafeMotos, the first moto company in Rwanda to start employing women as drivers.
But finding those women was not easy.
“I talked to the women who sold goods on the side of the street, which is not allowed in Rwanda,” she said.
“When I interviewed them, I told them we could change their lives. I told them they no longer had to fear the police who would chase them because they were selling goods on the side of the streets.
“But when I tried to talk these women they said, ‘no woman can do that’. They thought people were going to laugh at them, and they thought they wouldn’t be able to ride the motorcycle,” Nikuze said.
“They were simply afraid of doing it.”
But Nikuze persevered, eventually signing up five women, of whom three got their moto license.
The idea to enroll women as drivers came from Barrett Nash, one of the two founders of the company.
“Rwanda talks a lot about female empowerment, so I was struck by the fact there were no female drivers,” Nash told Al Jazeera.
Currently, the most important thing is for both the drivers and the customers to feel like female drivers are normal.
“People often say things like ‘oh females can’t drive’, but the people on the back often don’t even notice the drivers are female because they wear helmets and can’t see they’re women,” Nash said. Nikuze recalls an instance one of the drivers told her about, confirming this.
“Two female drivers were at the same place, and one of them looked a bit more like a man. The customer went to the driver who looked a bit more manly, and he said bad things about female drivers,” she said.
“When he reached the destination he discovered he was being driven by a female, after which he said ‘no way I can’t believe it’. After that he apologised, but he learned from that experience that women can do this just as well.”
And, maybe more importantly, the women’s lives are improving because they gain financial independence and respect within the community.
“The women have all sorts of backgrounds: single mothers, married women, anyone who wants to change Rwandan culture and be more independent,” Nikuze said.
The company is now looking at a feature to allow female customers to specifically request female drivers, which would improve the safety for both driver and customer.
But currently there simply are not enough women who drive the motorcycles to meet that demand, partially because it is an issue getting enough motos for the women, who currently have to go through a complicated process to acquire a bike.
“We still have a problem getting motos,” Nikuze said, explaining the women start paying for their motorbikes three months after starting to work for the company.
Nikuze said she is currently looking at solutions to solve this.
“We want to work with the government to provide women with loans so they can get their own motos,” she said.
Hopefully soon, she said, the company will also employ female drivers in more rural parts of Rwanda, not just Kigali.
Despite the low number of female drivers in Rwanda zooming through the city, Nikuze said her work achieves more than just women’s employment.
It is also about a cultural shift, she emphasised, changing the perception of men and women in Rwanda – and around the world.
“Every woman has to believe in herself. If you as a woman don’t believe in yourself, in your abilities, nobody else is going to believe in you,” she said.
“We as females need to stand up and fight for our rights and fight for our improvement,” Nikuze added.
“I would really love every Rwandan woman, every African woman and every woman all over the world to believe that we can do everything we can do that we want to.”