By Kevine Omollo and Henry Owino
“If only we had cycling lanes, the world would be a better place.” These were the words of Hakim Owiny, an environmental conservation activist.
Owiny, a Ugandan, set off from Kampala, Uganda on August 28, 2023, to cycle more than 650 kilometres to Nairobi, Kenya to attend the Africa Climate Summit.
The summit themed ‘Driving Green Growth and Climate Finance Solutions for Africa and the World’ brought together more than 10,000 delegates from the African continent to deliberate on local and global climate solutions.
At the sidelines of the summit was the Africa Climate Week, which provided a platform for policymakers, practitioners, businesses and civil society to exchange on climate solutions, barriers to overcome and opportunities to realise in different regions, leading to the first global stocktake concluding at COP28 in UAE in December of this year.
Owiny’s mission at the summit was to rally policymakers to push for the establishment of cycling lanes in all road networks in Africa, especially in urban centres where pollution from motor vehicle fumes has become a huge menace.
The InfoNile team caught up with Owiny in Kisumu, Kenya on August 31, three days after he began his journey in Kampala. He looked fresh and energetic.
“I began the campaigns on safe cycling lanes in 2019, and I am glad that it is picking up,” he said.
According to Owiny, his action was motivated after he read a news article about air pollution in Kampala. “The report indicated that idling cars in Kampala town were consuming at least 140,000 litres of fuel each day,” said Owiny.
Idling cars are those motor vehicles stuck in traffic jams, but which keep their engines running.
“I felt like, if these people had alternative means of transport, they would not waste all these resources and time in traffic,” added Owiny.
He however noted that Kampala City, just like other cities in East Africa, does not have provisions for safe cycling lanes to motivate people to cycle, adding that without these lanes, people have no environmentally friendly options for transport and have to rely on motor vehicles.
Owiny says that due to lack of the safe cycling lanes, some cyclists have lost their lives, while others are left with permanent disabilities as motorists do not mind about them on the road.
According to Owiny, safe cycling lanes have enormous benefits to the environment, the economy and the health of the people.
“With safe cycling lanes, we would save our environment from the fumes from the motor vehicles; we would save the millions of money lost in fuel consumed by idling cars, and we would also have healthy people who exercise and breathe fresh air,” he noted.
A 2019 UNICEF report found that deaths in Africa from outdoor air pollution increased by almost 60 percent between 1990 and 2017.
The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that there are 4.2 million premature deaths every year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution and 3.8 million deaths annually as a result of household (indoor) exposure primarily related to smoke from cooking and heating.
WHO adds that more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed their recommended limits, threatening lives, productivity and economies.
The Lancet Commission, drawing on the Global Burden of Disease study (2015), estimates annual global premature deaths from air pollution at between 5.7 to 7.3 million.
Owiny says that with a cycling lane, these worrying statistics could be reversed.
Electric Bike Promoters Join Safe Cycling Lane Advocacy
During his campaign ahead of the Africa Climate Week, Owiny was supported by eBee, a Kenyan electric bicycle company.
The company sells, leases and services electric bicycles to individuals and businesses. The “eBees” promote environmental responsibility while providing a healthy, fun, and economical alternative to mobility.
The e-bikes are equipped with a battery that can last for 70 kilometres on a single charge and can carry up to 35 kilograms of goods. The extra boost makes it easy to get up hills, with half of all riders using their e-bikes daily to earn a living.
Owiny spent seven days cycling from Kampala to Nairobi, with stopovers in Namawojjolo, Najjembe, Iganga and Busia in Uganda and Busia, Dudi, Kisumu, and Nakuru in Kenya.
During his stopovers, he engaged the public on environmental conservation, especially on the establishment of safe cycling lanes.
In Kisumu, Owiny joined the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA), a Kenyan parastatal that had organised a cycling event in an anti-air pollution campaign.
“I feel this is what we want to see, when many more people are joining the initiative to promote the safe cycling lane agenda,” said Owiny, who studied Public Administration and Management at Kampala International University.
Owiny was also joined by Alistair Amendi, the Director of Operations at One MTN, a global organisation involved in carbon removal from the environment through planting trees.
“What Owiny is doing is close to our hearts. While we focus on carbon removal from the environment through planting trees, he is championing for reduction of carbon emissions into the environment. This is the reason why we have joined hands for this course,” he said.
Amendi, who is the organisation’s in-charge for Kenya and Uganda, accompanied Owiny in cycling from Kisumu to Nairobi, saying his organisation was among those exhibiting at the summit.
At the summit, Owiny exhibited some of the activities he has been engaged in during his campaigns on anti-air pollution. “My mission is to rally the stakeholders to work together and turn policy declarations into actions,” he told InfoNile while enroute to Nairobi.
Are safe cycling lanes viable?
In a region where most roads are narrow, with limited and in some cases no land reserve for expansion, questions on the achievability of the safe cycling lanes campaign has always come to the discussion table.
However, leaders such as Kipchumba Murkomen, the Kenya Cabinet Secretary for Roads and Transport, are upbeat about this idea.
According to Murkomen, plans are underway to start building roads with non-motorists’ paths for both cyclists and pedestrians to minimise accidents. He says the first constructed roads with safe cycling lanes will be ready for use by December 2024. “Initially roads were constructed for vehicles alone without putting into consideration other road users. However, as time passes by, the population has grown, vehicles have increased in numbers, and pollution is dense. We have no options but welcome alternative means of transport,” Murkomen explains.
He also says that the expansion of roads to create safer cycling and pedestrian lanes will reduce road traffic collisions that for example claimed 2,124 lives between January to 25 June 2023, according to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) recent report. According to NTSA data, more pedestrians were victims of road accidents, with 729 recorded fatalities in the same 2023 period followed by motorcyclists at 561.
What was achieved at the Africa Climate Summit?
Over 25,000 delegates graced the summit. They included 18 heads of African States, the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, and the President of the European Union Ursula von der Leyen. The summit culminated with the adoption of the Nairobi Declaration on Climate Change and a Call to Action.
The declaration among others acknowledges that climate change is the single greatest challenge facing humanity and the single biggest threat to all life on earth, demanding urgent and concerted action from all nations to lower emissions and reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In the declaration, African leaders agreed to accelerate efforts to decarbonize the transport, industrial and electricity sectors through the use of smart, digital and highly efficient technologies such as green hydrogen, synthetic fuels and battery storage. They also agreed to build effective partnerships between Africa and other regions to meet the needs for financial, technical and technological support and knowledge sharing for climate change adaptation; strengthen early warning systems and climate information services; and take early action to protect lives, livelihoods and assets and inform long-term decision-making related to climate change risks.
Also, leaders agreed to support smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples, and local communities in the green economic transition, given their key role in ecosystem stewardship; and to identify, prioritise, and mainstream adaptation into development policy-making and planning, including in the context of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) among others.
This story was supported by InfoNile.