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The good, the bad, the ugly side of Kabaza trade

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In Mzuzu and some parts of the Northern Region, they call them Kabaza operators. In the Central Region, the Kabaza name will still be heard here and there. But they are predominantly called abandu or adampa.

Through cultural integration and intermarriages, people of the Central and Southern regions share some common names and terms, that is why you will find the name abandu or adampa being commonly used in most parts of these two regions in reference to bicycle taxi operators.

Despite differences in names and culture, the impact of bicycle taxi operators on the country’s social economic growth cannot be overlooked.

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On the individual level the bicycle taxi business has managed to offer an alternative source of income to operators as well as some businessmen.

Although the trade looks scruffy to most people, it has, however, become lucrative to millions of school leavers due to challenges associated with securing jobs.

Some people have also seized the opportunity and started owning bicycles which they are hiring out to these unemployed youth at a daily cost.

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For councils like Mangochi, Balaka and Salima where the bicycle taxis operate, the trade has become a reliable source of funds which they are using to provide public social services.

For example, Mangochi Town Council collects a minimum of K2.5 million per month from the 1,800 registered bicycle operators in the form of monthly licenses, according to the council’s chairperson, Councillor Ibrahim Kacheya.

Kacheya reveals that the figure is higher than that collected from minibuses and big buses within the township’s depots which currently stands at K800, 000 per month.

“From our monthly figures, we collect an average of K30 million per annum from the Kabaza operators. This money is three times more than what we collect from our bus depot,” says Kacheya.

He explains that since Town Councils do not receive Other Recurrent Transaction (ORT) funding from the government, the revenue which they collect from Kabaza operators is like blood in the council’s veins such that most of its operations cannot survive without them.

“Unlike our friends at the district council, we are supposed to find our own means of survival. We are also required to employ our own supporting staff, managing refuse within the township and making sure that filler roads are in good condition. All these activities have been made possible through funds collected from Kabaza operators,” adds the Mangochi Town Council chairman.

Just like in Mangochi, Balaka Township can also not do without the Kabaza trade. With a population of about 2, 000 registered operators, the council gets an annual income of about K21million, according to the Council’s chairperson, Stande Nguyeje.

Based on their total monthly income, kabaza trade generates second highest income after market fees.

Nguyeje says they charge a minimum of K1, 500 per per month for each bicycle and that defaulters are charged an extra K1, 500 to make it K3, 000. This money, he says, helps them pay recurrent bills such water and electricity.

The impact of bicycle taxi operators has been spread evenly across the country in the sense that different sectors of the society have benefited from their existence in one way or the other.

To government, the trade has managed to provide an alternative source of employment to millions of youth in the case of the government and private sector’s failure to create jobs and absolve millions of school leavers, like 32-year-old Moses Mopiha, who plies his trade in Mangochi Township.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the unemployment rate in Malawi stands at seven percent against an estimated population of 16 million people.

This, however, is much lower than the 20.4 percent unemployment rate which is obtained using the broad unemployment definition used by other international governance boards.

As Mopiha explains, after completing his secondary school education, he failed to attain good grades to take him to university. His parents could also not manage to generate income for his school fees in private colleges.

“I tried so hard to look for employment in Lilongwe and Blantyre but I failed. I then decided to move to Mangochi and venture into kabaza business just to sustain myself and my family,” he says.

Mopiha does not own a bicycle. He hires it from a businessman who has 50 bicycles on his fleet. But he is required to pay K500 hiring fee every day to the owner. It is also his duty to pay for the K1, 500 license which Mangochi Town Council charges every month for those operating in the township.

On a good day, he reveals, Kabaza operators can generate K3, 500: “But that requires hard work because cycling is a very difficult job. Competition is also high because a lot of people are venturing into the business.”

He says everything is not rosy with the trade. Mopiha says most of his colleagues have been robbed of bicycles by people masquerading as customers. He adds that motorists, on the other hand, have no respect for kabaza operators when they are on the roads despite their contribution to the Council.

However, while there are noticeable gains, Kabaza operators have also been a nuisance on the roads. Mangochi Police Traffic Station Officer, Joseph Simika, discloses that two-third of accidents which happen in the township involve kabaza operators.

He says, currently, his department is working with the Town Council officials to train the operators on High Way Code tips in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents.

Mangochi Town Council Chief Executive Officer, James Manyetela, alleges that, in some instances, kabaza operators have been used by smugglers in their trade.

“Knowingly or unknowingly, Kabaza operators are the ones who are hired by robbers to escape police check points to transport illegal items.

“You can agree with me that it is easier to escape Police checks using a bicycle than a car. This has sadly been utilised by the thieves,” he said.

Manyetela says the Council has enacted by-laws to regulate the Kabaza trade which, among other things, do not allow the operators to trade after 8 pm.

He adds that the Council has put in place mechanisms for the identification of all operators by, among other measures, ensuring that bicycle taxi operators use number plates.

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