Bicycle foot power the way to go in Malawi

Bicycle taxis with padded passenger seats fashioned onto their metal baggage racks line the road waiting for customers to hop on for a low cost ride - Malawian-style.

Two-wheeled transport rivals cars outside of big cities in this small southern African nation, where simple bikes with few bells and whistles are used to ferry anything from to giant stacks of firewood to iced lollies and even the sick, in special attachable wagons.

"Boat making was a hard job, that's why I decided to switch. I make about 1,000 Malawian kwacha ($6.6, 4.5 euro) a day," said Panjira Khombe, 28, who has taxied passengers for two years.

"I'm used to it. I'm able to carry big-bodied people," he said, unfazed at potential heavy loads. "We don't mind - so long as there is a customer."

Unlike the noisy swarm of motorcycles that have replaced bicycles in other parts of Africa, rural Malawi has a quaintly unhurried retro feel set to the occasional gentle squeak of bicycle parts at work.

Alex Hockin, a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders - a non-profit group which works to improve lives in rural Africa - paid just over a dollar to a "kabaza" driver to glide along an empty stretch of highway with her shopping from the eastern town of Salima near Lake Malawi.

"I really like them," said the 21-year-old environmental sciences student, comparing their ease and availability to the public transport system in her native Canada.

"You just hop on a bike taxi if you want to get around," she said, adding however that she's learned to stay clear of the models with non-padded passenger seats.

"It was surprising. There are like 10 or 20 bikes for every car that you see going through Salima. It makes sense though I guess because of the fuel crisis."

Malawi, a mainly agricultural country of some 16 million people who are mostly desperately poor, registers some 3,000 vehicles per month.

But motorists are crippled by unprecedented petrol and diesel shortages that have also affected the frequency and cost of public transport in a land struggling to make up for years of underdevelopment.

This is where the taxi bikes step in. Not only can they skirt the fuel costs, they are able to reach more places and people in an impoverished, rural, land-locked country where 39 percent of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

"The bicycle is very popular in Malawi, because people can't afford a motorbike and because Malawi has a high density of population," said Dutchman Peter Meijer who set up a bike business, Sakaramenta, in 2009.

- 'Because they are poor' -

His company, based in the economic capital Blantyre, makes several bike carts, notably to transport or sell goods. But his most popular product is what he calls the "CareCar" bicycle ambulance which carries patients in a special cart attached to the bike, with 800 already sold.

"The demand for the 'CareCar' is big," Meijer told AFP, saying 80 percent go to non-governmental organisations while companies with social responsibility policies snap up the rest.

"It is used to transport patients and pregnant women from the village to the hospital. The average distance in the rural areas in Malawi from the village to the health centre is 13 kilometres (eight miles). Normally people have to walk this distance."

Countrywide dealer Farmers World, meanwhile, sells 8,000 to 10,000 bikes a year imported from India for between 12,000 and 15,000 kwacha. A basic single gear, standard 22-inch (55-centimetre) wheel model is the most popular.

"It is a tool to transport people as well as goods, (requires) no road taxes and does not need a parking space," said procurement manager Amin Edhi.

In a busy street market in Nsundwe, west of the administrative capital Lilongwe in central Malawi, bike mechanics busied with repairs near two-wheelers loaded with firewood.

"People use bikes because they are poor," said Felix Ziwande, next to a group of bikes outside his video shop, Helbert Video Show, which charges 10 kwacha to watch a Chinese movie screened on a small television with subtitles in English, the official language.

Moving through the market was frozen lolly seller 16-year-old Banda Chimupuwe, with a red cooler box strapped to his bike.

"It's easy when I want to sell my business," he said about his green bike that he bought new for 12,000 kwacha. "It's cheap - it does not need petrol."

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