Pedal power to Malawi

Bicycles from Asia are transforming the countryside in Malawi, providing an economic lifeline and a healthier start to life for the next generation. The bicycles illustrate what trade can do to economies on the rise.

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See how bicycles lift the Malawi economy. 3:24

Leaning on his bicycle in the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, Bryan Banda is not just hanging around. He is waiting for the next passenger for his kabaza, the local name for a bicycle taxi:

“I make 20 trips a day, which gives me an income of about 3-4,000 kwacha (roughly USD 4-5),” he explains.

Foot on the ladder

For the past year, 19-year-old Banda has made his living driving passengers around the city on the cushy seat on the rear rack of his bicycle, a job he says that he enjoys. In a country with few opportunities for employment, his story is not unique.

“Bicycles give work, they give relatively inexpensive mobility, and they give dignity and a real sense of being people of worth in a community,” says Professor Gordon Pirie of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“For a relatively small capital outlay, bicycle owners could really begin to get their feet on the bottom of the ladder of service delivery and running small businesses,“ Pirie adds.

1,000 calls from Asia

Maersk Line and Safmarine vessels call at African ports from Asia more than 1,000 times annually and the increasing volumes of finished goods, anything from rice and palm oil to electronics and motorcycles, are reflected in the hard numbers: from 187,000 containers (forty-foot equivalent) in 2005 to 605,000 in 2014, –corresponding to a whopping 224% increase over a decade.

Bryan Banda is waiting for the next passenger for his kabaza, the local name for a bicycle taxi: “I make 20 trips a day, which gives me an income of about 3-4,000 kwacha (roughly USD 4-5).”

Last year, Safmarine carried 200 of these containers, filled with bicycles, to Africa’s hinterland countries via the port in Beira, Mozambique, distributing a staggering 100,000 bicycles in the process.

“As an African, I am proud to be a part of Maersk Line and proud to be a member of my generation, being here at this time, when access to trade and ease of trade is empowering so many people and creating a lot of jobs”, says Carolyn Kathewera, a Malawian who currently works as branch manager at Maersk Line’s office in Nacala, Mozambique.

“For many Malawians, a bicycle represents a job and an economic lifeline. Bicycles have transformed my country,” says Carolyn Kathewera.

Five years into the boom

The two-wheeler has become a common sight across many African countries. Not least in Malawi, where bicycles are not only used as taxis, but also for transporting firewood, livestock and even functioning as ambulances. In short, bicycles are vehicles for economic empowerment and personal freedom in Malawi.

“The big influx of bicycles in Malawi started five years ago. Because of our relationship with China more bicycles are coming in at affordable prices,” says Eric Tsetekani, an executive director with MaiKhanda Trust, an NGO that works to distribute special carts that can attach to a bicycle, thereby creating an ambulance.

This helps patients and pregnant women, in particular, to get from small villages to hospitals. The average distance in rural Malawi from one’s home to the local health centre is more than 10 kilometres and the narrow paths to the villages do not allow a motorised ambulance access. Previously, people would walk to the health centres.

“In my project, we have about 110 of these bicycles distributed amongst the communities, and this is saving the lives of mothers and babies,” says Eric Tsetekani.

Meanwhile, kabaza rider Bryan Banda has sped off on his kabaza towards the market in town. His passenger is a woman who wants to do some grocery shopping. After another few trips, he’ll be ready for an after-work beer.