By Kondwani Magombo:
When you are at the trading centre, it does not require an inquisitive mind to notice the force through its brands – New Force, Expendable and CHR.
These are three household names of bicycle taxi (Kabaza or Bandu) fleets whose contribution goes beyond just the mobility of people and goods around the district’s epicenter; they also feed and provide for the needs of 290 families around the area.
“These are ‘big companies’ here at Mponela. New Force alone has 150 bicycles while Expendable and CHR have 100 and 40 bicycles respectively,” 28-year-old Gift Phiri, who operates CHR 33, explains.
Phiri, who hails from Chipembere Village in Traditional Authority (T.A.) Msakambewa in Dowa, says every Kabaza operator remits K600 every day to the owner of the bicycle and retains the rest of the money made on that particular day.
“We make more money than we remit to the bosses,” Phiri, married with two children admits.
“On a bad day, we go home with not less than K3, 000, and on a good day we make up to K5,000. So, we find this arrangement more beneficial to us than to our masters,” he adds.
Phiri’s sentiments are echoed by Pilato Samalani of Kawamba-Chintuchang’ombe Village under T.A. Mponela, who operates New Force 49.
Like Phiri, Samalani is married with one child and attributes his survival during the lean period to the Kabaza business under New Force’s employment.
“Apart from my family, I also look after my parents and those of my wife.
“In truth, none of us have ever gone to bed on an empty stomach this lean season. Everyday there’s always enough money to take home to feed us all for days,” Samalani explains.
According to the Kabaza operators, the luckiest days come with tobacco market season when they net up to K7, 000 as their take-home after the K600 remittance.
The sentiments of Phiri and Samalani are generally a representative of the rest of the employees of the three bicycle taxi companies; New Force, Expendable and CHR.
The man behind CHR Bicycle Taxi Services is Christopher Harrison, 27, of Chimbalanga Village in T.A. Chitekwere in Lilongwe, but resides at Takomana area on the outskirts of Mponela Trading Centre.
New Force, on the other hand, is owned by 39-year-old Amos Mdala of Lulanga Village, T.A. Lulanga in Mangochi while Expendable Bicycle Taxi Services is owned by Steven Kade, 43, of Nyemba Village in T.A. Kwataine in Ntcheu.
Both Mdala and Kade own other businesses at Mponela Trading Centre, apart from their fleets of bicycle taxis.
Mdala, who also owns New Force Hardware, ventured into the Kabaza business in August 2019, while Kade, who has a rest house at Mponela and Harrison, a renowned agro-dealer, joined the trade in September and December 2019 respectively.
Interacting with the three at their respective premises required record patience as their Kabaza operators kept flocking in for daily remittances of K600, interrupting the interview frequently.
With only few months in the business and already owning 40 bicycles, Harrison’s limit is the sky.
“I want to hit the mark of 100 bicycles by June this year,” challenges Harrison who ventured into the business as a bridging-income-generating activity to his seasonal agro-business.
“I grow, buy and sell maize, groundnuts and other crop produce, but this is a seasonal business. I had to find something to do in between seasons and I opted for the Kabaza, which I find very rewarding,” he adds.
On his part, Kade started his business after seeing that he was not raking in much from his hospitality and pool table businesses.
“It was Mdala who inspired me and I thought of joining the band wagon. So, I went on procuring bicycles and recruiting young men to operate them,” Kade narrates.
“Today, I have 100 bicycle taxis operating here at Mponela alone; 15 bicycles operating at Lumbadzi and 10 bicycles operating at Area 25 in Lilongwe – a total of 125 bicycles,” he adds.
Perhaps it is Mdala’s story that one would find more interesting. He discloses that one key factor that compelled him to embark on the business was high poverty levels among Mponela’s young men due to unemployment.
“I used to order frames and other bicycle parts from Tanzania for my hardware; they are very strong and expensive parts and couldn’t sell much due to their exorbitant price.
“Then looking at the levels of poverty among young men here, the idea dawned on me. I wanted to create employment to as many young men as possible to enable them fend for their families,” he says.
Mdala’s bicycles are unique as they are assembled from the strong frames and bicycle parts he orders from Tanzania. One bicycle costs Mdala K130, 000 to put together.
At the time of going to press, Mdala had 150 bicycles operating at Mponela Trading Centre with the demand for more skyrocketing.
“More young men keep flocking in for employment and as I speak, I have listed over 100 on reserve, which means I’ll have to assemble more bicycles for them,” Mdala states.
Besides offering employment, the 39-year-old entrepreneur from Mangochi goes an extra mile in looking after the welfare of his employees.
He has a medical scheme for his employees, their spouses and children. He also provides coffins and food in the event of death.
The New Force proprietor also has other incentives such as a revolving loan fund and special rewards for his employees.
“Last December, I rewarded 10 employees in various ways,” he says.
“There were three options: operating the Kabaza for three months without remitting anything; getting a free bicycle or cash amounting to K55, 000 – which is a minimum price for an ordinary bicycle,” Mdala explains.
The three owners of the bicycle taxis have had a share of challenges in their respective enterprises. Chief among them is default of the remittance of cash and the risk of having the bicycles stolen by untrustworthy operators.
Nevertheless, they all have one common way of arresting the challenges. For instance, for security purposes the proprietors keep a photocopy of national ID details for each employee and his witness for easy tracking.
While the Mponela growth story may not be isolated news, it is, probably, the humanitarian element that the likes of Mdala attach to their enterprise that stands out.
Simple arithmetic will tell you that the three bicycle taxi proprietors get a constant sum of K174, 000 on daily basis from their 290 bicycles that ply the roads at Mponela. —Mana