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Biker Africa: mobility doesn't just mean phones

In the past decade two inventions have dramatically altered life throughout the vast and diverse continent of Africa. The first is the mobile phone and the second (more rarely considered) is the motorbike.
Damian Rafferty
30 October 2011

The rise of the motorbike for personal transport and as a moto-taxi has been dramatic. In cities across the continent, subsidised public transport collapsed in the 90s and the beneficiaries were private minibuses and more recently moto-taxis. In countries like Benin, every city has its unionised gangs of Zem taxis in their city colours ferrying people around. In Lagos, they take people where the main road networks don’t go and are named after an airline for their speed in heavy traffic and their tendency to go as the crow flies cutting journey times dramatically. Not only are they cheap and more flexible than public transport, they can cope with roads or rather the lack of roads that other vehicles simply can not.

In rural areas, they are often the only form of transport you’ll see and they enable farmers to farm plots of land they otherwise simply couldn’t get to and come home or to the market with their produce. In Benin it is not uncommon to see hundreds of chickens trussed up over the front of motorbikes and in all Muslim areas, Tabaski or Eid would not be the same without the sight of goats and sheep slung across motorbikes hurtling to their certain fate.

In Bamako, young and old alike have taken to two wheels with gusto. Young women with beautiful hairdos ride helmet-free around the city chatting with their friends on the back (the friend is usually also texting or calling someone on her mobile). Women also often prefer moto-taxis over the minibuses as there is much less chance of being groped or harassed. Without a doubt for younger and more well-off women, motorbikes have been a liberation.

The vast majority of those bikes are cheap underpowered Chinese models called ‘Jakartas’ in Mali. The rest are also from China and are rarely over 125ccs. For a few hundred Euros a family can get a bike thus making school runs easier, enabling the owners to get to work without crippling commute times and boost their social status too. While it is relatively rare to see a Chinese made bike in the west, China now accounts for 50% of the bikes made globally and 70% of these are headed for Africa. In 3 months, criss-crossing five countries in West Africa, I could count on one hand the number of non-Chinese bikes I saw and apart from a couple of overlanders’ muscle bikes they all belonged to elite police or army personnel.

There are still, however, a few Vespas of a certain vintage around, maintained lovingly over the years much like the ancient Peugeots used for taxis in Francophone West Africa. Around Lake Possotome in Benin, I saw a number of tank-like vehicles that looked like something from Mad Max. I stopped at the side of the road to speak to the owner of one and he explained that they convert ancient scooters into mobile fuel stations. Each Vespa can carry around 500l of fuel thanks to home made tanks welded on. They look like death traps and across the border in Togo a hotel owner could not control himself from laughing at the sight of photos of these vehicles and called all his friends to see what his near neighbours were up to.

The uniformity of bikes (even so called different brands seem to have the same parts), means that it is cheap and easy to get the bikes fixed. To set up a mechanics all you need is a set of spanners plus four posts and a roof for shade and a bench for your customers to sit on. Very often the bench will be crowded with men chewing the fat and while the mechanic toils away his premises serve as a social hub for the men. I visited dozens of these on my 7500km trip around West Africa as I had a permanently self-loosening chain. I never minded though as it would only cost a few pennies to fix and the mechanics was always a great place to chat, get directions and meet people.

The cheapness and maintainability of motorbikes has done more than just liberate the young, made farmers lives easier, improved the lot of African women and provided employment though. Rural schools can get teachers who wouldn’t want to live in the village but are happy to commute, the police are able to get to places where law enforcement would not be otherwise practical and motorbikes have had a profound effect on health services.

Timely access to health centres is crucial for many of the major killers in Sub Saharan Africa such as malaria and complications in labour for women. While a sick child can be transported by bike relatively easily, a woman in labour is a harder proposition but many health services have successfully experimented with special sidecars.

Moreover, health visitors can get to places to help women in labour, take samples, give vaccinations or dispense life-saving advice far more easily. The New York Times ran a piece about Tsepo Kotelo a healthcare worker from Lesotho who now visits seven times as many villages because of his bike. While fleets of expensive 4x4s look great, the truth is that they are far more expensive to buy, maintain and run and simply can’t get to the more remote places in Africa. Tsepo is not just trained in medical issues though, he is also shown how to maintain his bike and the odds are good that anything more complicated will be easily fixed by the nearest mechanic.

Of course it is not all good news. As motorbike usage increases so do accidents. Few riders wear a helmet and are unlikely to do so until someone invents one that doesn’t boil your head and cost a lot. I know from personal experience as I crawled along sandy tracks while locals hurtled past me at incredible speeds, drivers especially in the countryside are often skilled and fearless but it only takes an animal to wander into the road or an unexpected hole to cause a grave accident.
But some cities like Ouagadougou and Bamako, where motorbike usage is very high have at least created motorbike lanes over some of the busiest routes although it can be fairly intimidating being in a huge huddle of bikes shuffling for pole position.

And lastly, how do you think all those mobiles that have so changed the lives of Africans get charged in rural areas or in slums without access to electricity? More often than not it’s thanks to the battery on someone’s motorbike.

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