It is Saturday at Nkando Trading Centre in Mulanje, the second and final market day of the week. The first was on Tuesday.
By 8am, the trading centre is filled with people of all ages and one wonders what time they left their homes for the buzzing market.
These are people from various places. Some are from nearby villages while others are from surrounding districts of Phalombe, Chiradzulu, Blantyre, Thyolo and Zomba. Yet others have come from as far as Mangochi, Lilongwe and Salima.
For a motorist just passing by the hive of activity on a market day, it takes about 15 minutes to zip past the chaos created by vendors, buyers, minibuses, cyclists and other motorists.
However, what catches the eye is the massive population of bicycles on the sidewalk. There are hundreds of them parked on various spots, with some leaning against each other just a stone’s throw from the minibus stage. Others are parked where vendors sell potatoes, vegetables, fruits, second-hand clothes, empty sacks and kitchen utensils.
Yet other bicycles, are operated as taxis locally known as kabaza or mahayala. The operators are there just waiting for possible customers. Bicycles run this busy trading centre, the locals say.
Among Nkando’s cyclists is Emmanuel Chinomba who migrated to the area from Joni Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Nkanda in Mulanje.
The father-of-two started operating a bicycle taxi in 2011 and says the fast-turning business has sustained his life and family for the past eight years.
But it is not every day Chinomba goes home smiling, he says.
“Business has got its own days,” he explains. “There are too many bicycle taxis operators and we compete for customers. There are bad days when I knock off without even picking a single customer.”
On a good day, he shuttles six people—with two travelling across a long distance to Zomba-Mayaka or Phalombe—attracting K4 000 per person.
Other destinations include Mlomba and Namphungo in Mulanje as well as Milepa in Chiradzulu.
“I charge K1 000 per trip to these places.” he says.
Looking at the inundation of bicycles at Nkando, it is clear some operators go home empty-handed.
“When it’s not a market day, it is just a matter of sheer luck for us to get customers. Otherwise, apart from bicycles, there are also motorcycles waiting for the same customers coming and leaving Nkando,” says Chinomba.
The bicycle-taxi operators usually spend the whole market day at Nkando, scrambling for customers until darkness falls. Holding their bicycles, they run after potential customers, asking: “Do you need a lift?” When they get a positive nod, the cyclists of Nkando negotiate the fare and the journey starts.
One customer Chinomba encountered on this market day is Zinenani Chagula, 19. Every day, the teen mother, from Minimini in Mulanje, travels to Nkando to sell pineapples and bananas to support her 16-month-old baby girl.
She says: “Bicycles keep us moving and in business. I come to this market to sell my items and I mostly rely on bicycle taxis because of their efficiency.
“A minibus takes longer to start off. It has to fill up before the journey begins. The same trip takes longer as the minibus stops frequently to drop and pick passengers,” says Chagula.
Every market day, Dalitso Sakwata, from Namitambo, T/A Nkalo in Chiradzulu, goes to Nkando Market to sell washing powder.
“Minibuses usually start operating too late for some of us who have to be at the market by 6am to catch early buyers. To keep time, bicycle taxis come in handy. They start operating as early as 4am,” she says.
Whenever Sakwata and her kindred finish selling their commodities, they jump on bicycle carriers— heading for home.
She explains: “My home is far from the road. Unlike a minibus, a bicycle works to my advantage. It drops me right at my doorstep.
“A minibus drops me at a bus stage. When I am really tired from the scorching sun at the market, I still need to take a bicycle from the minibus stop to drop me home.”
With most rural roads still unpaved and in a poor state, bicycle taxis have become widespread and handy for people living in areas where motor vehicles cannot go.
For Amin Issa, from Kachenje Village in T/A Nkanda, it is really not a matter of choice. Rugged roads in her area force him to hire bicycle taxis everytime he going to Nkando Market to sell sweet potatoes.
“The road to my home is bad. A bridge on one of the rivers is broken. As such, no vehicle goes to my village at the moment,” he says.
Issa is convinced that pick-up trucks that operate in easy-to-reach villages would have been ideal for his business considering that he carries the potatoes in bulky bags.
“Sometimes, I hire two or three bicycles, depending on the amount of potatoes I am taking to the market on that particular day,” he says. In this way, Mkando turns like the wheels of the bicycles that bring an array of goods for sale in its overcrowded space where time is money—maybe except for the motorists stuck on the clogged, constricted roads.