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Bicycles new sign of status in Mozambique

A bundle of sugar cane juts from the back of a bicycle that artfully weaves through hundreds of other cyclists, whose numbers have grown along with the economy of Mozambique.

Bicycles have become the transport of choice in central Mozambique, especially among the sugar cane plantations. In the provincial capital of Quelimane, an old Portuguese sea port, they are supplanting the mini-bus taxis so ubiquitous in southern Africa.

Bike cabby Pedro Antonio, 25, has been taking fares who ride over his rear wheel for around five years.

"I get 20 clients a day, 25 if I'm lucky," he tells AFP, as a customer gets off the green rear seat.

Passengers pay five meticals (0.17 dollars, 0.12 euro) roughly the same fee as the minibus taxis but for a more pleasant trip without 20 others crammed into tight seats.

The bicyles are popularly seen as a sign of Mozambique's economic recovery during the nearly two decades since the end of a devastating civil war. With 6.5 percent growth last year, the country was one of Africa's top performers.

Mozambican President Armando Guebuza even referred to "more bicycles" as proof of his government's performance in his State of the Nation address last year.

"At the end of the war, lots of refugees brought bikes back from Malawi," said Paulo Maleia, 19, who cycles every day for his 18-kilometre commute to the Sena sugar mill in central Mozambique, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Quelimane.

The trend accelerated when the sugar mill opened in 2001. With 7,000 workers, it is the country's largest private employer.

"People use their bikes to get to the fields," Maleia says of the hundreds of cyclists traveling to plant and cut sugar cane on the banks of the Zambezi River.

His two-hour commute is far faster than making the trip by foot in the tropical heat. He carries a box of washing powder behind his seat and often transports his shopping home as well.

The cycle cost him 2,200 meticals ($75, 52 euros) at a shop three years ago. Like many bicycle owners, it is his most valuable possession and something of a status symbol in a country where 80 percent of the population survives on subsistence farming.

Despite the popularity of the simple black-framed bicycles in the north and central regions, they are far less common in the more developed south, around the economic and political capital Maputo.

That could be simply because of Maputo's higher population density, making minibus taxis more convenient, said academic Joseph Hanlon from Britain's Open University, who has researched the trend.

But while Mozambique does seem to have more bicycles now, he says that does not mirror a general decrease in poverty, noting that poverty levels have remained stubbornly stable despite the economy's consistent overall growth.

"Thirty dollars buys you a bicycle," he said. "You don't have to sell many sacks of maize to get that.

"Is that a fair measure of development? The answer is no," Hanlon said

Some 54 percent of Mozambicans live below the poverty line, according to UN data, a figure that has stayed relatively constant for the last decade.

"There are bicycles but that doesn't mean there's less poverty," Hanlon said. "There are more bicycles but in Maputo there are more cars."