In most trading centres in Malawi, operators of bicycle and motorcycle taxis, widely known as kabaza, scramble for customers.
With most rural roads still rugged, the motorbikes offer the fastest alternative to walking and cycling. This is common on tricky terrains where motor vehicles seldom go when it rains.
At Thunga Trading Centre in Thyolo, motorcycle taxis outnumber bicycles. Not many of the cyclists have licences and other requisite papers from the Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS).
Most of them bear foreign registration numbers or none. Often, they shuttle people without mandatory crash helmets, exposing the riders to deadly accidents.
But Gift Mikolasi from Chikhwaza Village in Traditional Authority (T/A)Chimaliro in Thyolo is worried about dwindling business as most people buy motorcycles.
“I don’t take customers on long routes that require passing through police roadblocks where traffic officers torment me because the motorcycle does not have valid papers yet. This reduces the money I make per day,” he says.
Mikolasi mostly takes customers to villages around Thunga. At times, he uses clandestine routes to evade law enforcers and speeds off to Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) in Chiradzulu—a trip that costs K6000 per person.
The father-of-one bought a motorcycle last November and it makes enough money to support his family.
“I get more money than I once got doing piecework in crop fields,” he brags.
Fanuel Makiya, another motorcycle taxi operator at the trading centre surrounded by sprawling tea fields, says the motorcycle taxi business flourishes on market days, when businesspeople from far and wide flock to Thunga along the Limbe-Thyolo Road.
“During market days here—Wednesdays and Sundays—I make up to K10 000. But on Thursdays, we wish we were resting at home,” he explains.
Makiya started the business three years ago. He avoids breakdowns which wipe out the gains made.
“If I take a customer to Goliati and the motorcycle breaks down at Chamasowa, I will have to relay the customer to a colleague and get just K500 for a trip that costs K1 500,” he explains.
However, the motorcycle taxi operators do not seem to have any sense of urgency to register their motorbikes.
The situation is similar in many districts. At Nkando in Mulanje, people using unregistered motorcycles are restricted to carrying travellers within the trading centre and nearby villages.
Since 2014, James Masamba from T/A Juma in Mulanje, has been operating at Nkando and nearby villages. Rarely, he “sneaks’ to Chiradzulu and Phalombe.
“Taking customers to distant destinations is a gamble. I am afraid of traffic police officers because my motorcycle doesn’t have valid papers. When I take the gamble, I end up paying huge fines from my earnings,” says Masamba, who has only one helmet.
He adds:“The priority is his customer’s safety,” he says. “When going far, I borrow one for myself.”
But the sights of motorcyclists travelling without helmets hint at laxity in law enforcement.
While motorised transport is stimulating rural economies and bringing people closer to services—including hospitals and markets—there is need to close the gap in road safety services.