Riding Kago in Karonga

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I arrive in Karonga at around 11 PM. Ordinarily the weather is supposed to be cool at this ungodly hour.

But not in Karonga.

It’s about 24 degrees Celsius, screams a strategically nearby night patrol policewoman in halting English.

Bicycle taxi operators in Karonga

In Karonga, a border district between Malawi and Tanzania, I use Kago (bicycle taxi) all the time so I am used to the discomforts. Outside the bus station there were only four Kago cyclists.

I carefully inspected their bikes and discreetly checked out the cyclist to see which one looked the most reliable and the least likely to take my pocket for a ride.

I chose to go with a man who looked a bit older and more trustworthy than the others, and whose bike was slightly cleaner. He greeted me humbly and asked me where I was going. I told him.

The bike-man and I had bonded we were in this journey together for the next 20 minutes, and I had to stop worrying about his smelly breath.

My travelling party and I flagged down two Kagos to take us downtown Karonga Old Town. He charges us K3, 000. That sounds like a lot but I have given myself one rule of the thumb whenever I travel long distance: never compare any amount I am paying from my origin to avoid heart palpitations.

We check in a K30, 000 hotel. Again that rule of the thumb! If the rooms did not have air-conditioners our blood could have turned into uwende, some say liwende, in no time at all.

I thought Nsanje is big business when it comes to heat, I muse to myself. With this kind of heat Nsanje can as well be Iceland!

Although Blantyre was not as hot as Karonga when I left, it was hot enough to make me forget to pack anything warm, not even a jacket. In fact I had mulled over putting on a short-sleeved shirt and short trousers complete with sandals. Why? I hate wearing shoes when embarking on a long journey.

So after doing the business that has taken me to KA, I step into the swelteringly hot and humid Karonga weather looking for a place to quench my throat.

Kago operating hours

As other cities and districts prefer car taxis or minibus as form of transport, in Karonga Kago which is bicycle taxi is the easiest transport. Kago operates in all roads in Karonga district even in M1 road and majority of them operate for 24 hours.

This is the best and reliable form of transport for me when I am travelling within the district. You don’t need to wait for it to be full as it is with other means of transport like taxi’s or minibus.

The locals along the shoreline of Lake Malawi, the country’s largest fishing heartland, enjoy and love travelling using Kago taxi’s; majority of them also owns their own bicycles which are different to Kago.

Kago operator and a passenger.

If you cannot own a car here at least you can manage a bicycle, they are cheap as we go and buy at the bordersays one Karonga resident Douglas Mwenetete.

Karonga is not the only district in Malawi where bicycle taxes are common. In some districts like Salima, Mzuzu city bicycle taxis are also common but they have their own names. Some call them Kabaza while some dub them Sacramentos.

Many Kago bicycles in Karonga are not like any other bicycle, the Kago is decorated in a unique way with some having a carrier basket in front.

Road accidents

Over the years, bicycle taxis have been involved in road accidents. A traumatic scene is of pedestrian — Anderson Mwenelupembe who died before long, after being hit within Mzuzu city center.

As my cyclist braked to find the string-like path on the side of the water, another Sacramentos cyclist approached from the opposite direction with a suitcase on his carrier. He dashed past, soaking us with huge drops of muddy water. Lost sight, next to be heard was big cry; Anderson was grounded on tarmac reached with his forehead,explains John Nyirenda, eye witness who was at the scene when tragedy took place.

Calls have been made by nationwide to pass bylaws approving this mode of transport.

Be assured that once Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development approves bylaws, road accidents involving bicycle taxis will be reduced, says Mzuzu City Deputy Mayor, Councillor Alexander Mwakikunga.

Councillor Mwakikunga said it was pathetic to lose a person through a bicycle taxi.

As Mzuzu City Council, we are against Sacramentos to operate in town as they do not know road safety rules, he said.

He then said Mzuzu City Council (MCC) has just reviewed its existing bylaws that, among other things, prohibit bicycle taxis from operating within the city’s central business district (CBD).

On 6th November, 2017  MCC had an extraordinary full council meeting where adoption of bylaws was made. And they are waiting an agreement of Minister of Local Government and Rural Development to approve.

Running battles between MCC backed by Police and the bicycle operators have been on and off in recent years. The police have been chasing the bicycle operators from the CBD from time to time but to no avail, perhaps due to the absence of written bylaws.

Many bicycle operators have little knowledge of how to use roads networks properly; as a result they cycle carelessly and cause a lot of accidents.

Often times, bicycle taxis operators cycle recklessly without considering the safety of other road users, resulting in a lot of road accidents.

In August 2015, Police in Karonga trained bicycle taxi operators in road safety measures to avoid occurrence of road accidents in the district. Similar training took place in Mzuzu city.

Hiring out Kago

This business opportunity has attracted so many Malawians to venture into it and has become the main informal employer. However, while some would like to carry passengers on the bicycle taxis, others would rather rent or hire bicycles out and have payment later as the customer returns the bicycle.

In this business, customers hire the bicycles and are charged per hour rather than bicycle owners ferrying customers to their preferred destinations.

William Ngambi, who hails from Karonga District, is one of the pioneers and a beneficiary of this type of business in Mzuzu City.

The 31 year old says ever since he sneaked into the business two years ago with 18 bicycles, he has raised over K800, 000.

The bike man explains: I have many friends in Karonga who do this kind of business, so I was also tempted to venture into it. However, it took me months to assemble these bicycles since we buy them in Tanzania.

Ng’ambi, who also owns a small grocery, says he charges only K100 per hour for each bicycle though the 18 bicycles cost him almost MK1 million to buy, pay custom duty and transport them to Mzuzu from Tanzania.

Bicycle taxis, have become the main mode of transport in both rural and urban areas across the country in recent years.

It is obvious most people resort to bicycle taxi’s because they are affordable and able to travel to difficult and remotest places that cannot be accessed by automobiles.

The big challenge Ng’ambi singles out, however, is entrusting someone with a bicycle which he says is not an easy thing to do considering that some clients may have bad motives of running away with it once hired.

Unlike Ngambi, Daniel Chisi who also plies a similar business not far from the former in Chibanja has badly been affected by the challenge of bicycle theft.

I started with about thirty four bicycles, now there are only less than ten. This week only I have had four bicycles stolen, he says.

To try to avert this challenge, Ngambi does not just hire out his bicycles; he gets full details of person hiring.

What I do first of all is know the person, if I doubt them I ask for an identification card, passport or driving license. After that, they can have the chance to ride and pay a hundred kwacha per hour. If they exceed [one hour], they will be asked to pay more depending on the number of hours they have spent with it.

We do not charge for any damages because we know anything can happen on the road,” he adds, saying every weekend the bicycles are serviced and repaired if there is need, to make sure they are always in good condition.

Though he has done this kind of business for more two years, Ngambi who is a primary school dropout fails to account how much he makes in a week or month.

History of Bicycle taxis

Bicycle taxis have a long history in Africa. Starting as early as the 1930s in Senegal, they emerged in Uganda and Kenya in the 1960s following border closures and economic crises. Some of the economic crises arose in the 1990s due to divestiture of public enterprises and economic liberalization, which led to a proliferation of informal enterprises. Whereas in some of these countries, such as Uganda, operators upgraded themselves to the use of motorcycles.

In Malawi such enterprises included bicycle taxis, wheelbarrows, handcarts, bus callboys and street vending.

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