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Elbowed out of driving motorcycle taxis, women own them instead

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HEAVY LOAD—The taxis are also proving useful in transportation of goods. In all the cases, the drivers are men

Motorcycle taxis are now in fashion in both rural and urban centres in Malawi. In all the cases, the drivers are men. But it does not mean women are not involved in any way in this business. Women motorcycle taxi owners are pulling strings from behind the scenes, write Ray Mwareya and Deogracias Kalima:

In Lunzu town, about eight miles outside Blantyre, highways roar with the sound of motorcycle taxis careening between car lanes. Driven mostly by young men in their 20s, the motorcycles bear brand names like Jiangsu, Lifan or Lifo.

It is overwhelmingly a male occupation. Hardly a woman in sight drives a motorcycle.

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Yet, a growing number of entrepreneurial women are quietly pooling their money in women’s clubs, eyeing something more lucrative: buying outright the cash-spinning motorcycles and leasing them out to the male drivers.

“The deal is that we pocket 65 percent of the day´s takings,” Sarah Showe, one of the women entrepreneurs. The driver takes the rest says.

No motorcycle taxi driving for a woman

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Women unable to find work driving motorcycle taxis is a reflection of a wider societal challenge related to prejudice and Gender-Based Violence – one in three Malawian women between the ages of 15 and 49 has encountered sexual violence, according to a 2018 study published in the BioMed Central.

“Socially it´s deeply frowned upon here for women to revv up motorcycle taxis, and haggle for passengers in taxi ranks packed with men,” Showe, who leases three motorcycles daily to male drivers says.

Her friend, Lomu Thomson, a teacher, once attempted to defy the norms during her school holidays. It ended badly.

“When we tried in 2017, customers would insult female bikers off the highway and male customers would refuse to pay female taxi cyclists at night. So much went wrong,” she said.

Finally, in July 2017, the Lunzu Women’s Motorcycle Fund Club, a group of 40 female entrepreneurs, was formed with a goal of owning the motorcycle taxis and managing them behind the scenes.

“It has since expanded into 10 such clubs of 40 female entrepreneurs each in the wider Blantyre, a city of about 800,000 people,” Carter Mavhiza, an accountant who helped the women get the bikes at an affordable price says.

Women find new income

In Lunzu, a town of 17,000 inhabitants, hundreds of motorcycle taxis ferry everyone and everything; from pregnant women going to hospitals, to bankers going to work, to kindergarten children going to school, or even furniture and cement bags.

“In Lunzu, they are filling a critical gap because we do not have a proper city-bus transit system or digital taxi platforms like Uber,” Mavhiza adds.

So, whilst women like Showe and Thomson, are effectively “barred” from driving motorcycle taxis, they take pride in being the motorbike owners.

As Thomson reveals: “A road-fit Lifan motorcycle nets about $15 a day. My male driver-cyclist pockets about $6 from the deal. And the young men work from 6am in the morning to 6:30pm in the evening.”

For other female motorcycle owners like Chifundo Magombo, 38, a beans farmer in Blantyre city, exclusion from driving these motorcycle taxis has been a blessing in disguise.

The young men operate the motorcycles while Magombo and other female owners free up their time to do other income-generating jobs that help to increase farming activities or pay for childcare.

For Thomson, the teacher, the new income stream is bolstering her retirement funds. She says: “My $7,000 teacher pension won´t last me even two years. Buying motorcycles now I feel is a smart move.”

Growing community of women owners

Some municipal governments in Malawi have now begun mentoring the women motorcycle owners. For example, the Mchinji District Council in western Malawi arranges mentorships to connect the entrepreneurs and recommends loans of between $250 and $779 to registered women motorcycle clubs.

“We mentor them and write reference letters so they can obtain low-interest loans from private financiers. This is our way of ensuring gender parity in the motorcycle taxi sector. It ensures that women’s household finances are bolstered. Also, women are more reliable in repaying loans,” Mwaimuna Mwanyali, a councillor in Mchinji says.

In some of the cities in Malawi, the emergence of women motorcycle ownership clubs has enabled more women than men to belong to unions.

“The business of women motorcycle owners rather than drivers is growing. In our town we now have 200 women who are unionised. Male operators largely shun unions,” Stacy Harawa, the President of Mzuzu Motorcycle Union, in Mzuzu the tourist capital of northern Malawi says.

For a $10 monthly union fee, women motorcycle owners have insurance from accidents that could wipe out their asset, Harawa adds.

“We are petitioning the tax-collecting Malawi Revenue Authority to reduce licence fees for women motorcycle owners, provided they are from a registered union.”

It feels super to employ men, Showe concludes.

“I´m able to create employment now. I employ my male nephews as motorcycles drivers. We agree on daily targets. Tables have turned.”— Africa Renewal

The article was published on Africa Renewal on 4 March 2021

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