Chipata city in eastern Zambia, on the border with Malawi, is loosely referred to as “Amsterdam” because, as in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, bicycles are Chipata’s transportation mainstay.
Thousands of human-powered bicycles crisscross Chipata traffic lights daily, ferrying groceries, passengers, civil servants, and—even a diplomat!
A few months ago, the Embassy of Sweden in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, tweeted a video of its ambassador Anna Maj Hultgård being transported on a bicycle in Chipata.
A very excited Ms. Hultgard said afterward that the ride was “Not only environmentally friendly, it’s also smoother than the car and really comfortable.”
Of Zambia’s 116 districts, Chipata District has the highest number of bicycles. Paul Nayombe, a retired Chipata city councilor, estimates up to 3,000 bicycle taxis in the city.
Bicycles didn’t become popular in Chipata because of residents’ desire to save the environment; rather, economic conditions compelled them to resort to a less expensive mode of transit.
However, since 2010 when the city began to gain attention because of the sheer number of bicycles plying the roads, residents have become more conscious of the fact that riding bikes is environmentally friendly.
How it began
Mr. Nayombe says that about a decade ago, “Chinese bicycle merchants began to set up bicycle shops in Chipata and suddenly the prices of brand-new bicycles decreased from $180 to an affordable $90”.
“Before Asian bicycle imports flooded Chipata, European-made bicycle brands such as Raleigh were pricey and beyond the reach of locals,” he says. Raleigh bikes cost between $350 and $2,000.
In addition, Asian bicycle merchants in Chipata allow those who cannot afford an outright purchase to stagger payments over five months.
“It’s the affordable installment payment plans that got us started,” says Lameck Sigwala, owner of 10 bicycle taxis that crisscross Chipata city centre daily.
Some Chipata residents say bicycle transit is good for the city's entrepreneurship economy, providing jobs for thousands of youths.
Diledi Moyana who works for the Zambia energy ministry says that: “The most important thing is the contribution to the city’s socio-economic development. By taking a bicycle ride, I’m putting money into the little guy’s pocket rather than enriching the few car taxi owners.”
In addition, bicycles help commuters beat the city’s morning and evening traffic congestion. The streets have properly marked bicycle lanes to ensure passenger safety.
Also, bicycle fares are 50 per cent lower than taxi fares and residents take advantage of them. The fare for a typical bicycle trip is $.10 cents.
Lastly, because Chipata is a small city, bicycle taxis can reach the main parts of the city relatively quickly.
The impact of bicycle taxis on Chipata’s urban ecosystem has been good, although there is a downside to it.
Chipata has some of Zambia´s lowest car fatalities, thanks to its bicycle transit culture, says Alan Phiri, an urban transport design consultant with the non-profit Chipata Youth Development Foundation.
“Unlike in Lusaka, you see fewer ambulances in Chipata blaring sirens to attend to car traffic accidents,” says Mr. Phiri.
According to the Zambia Police, in 2021, the country recorded 32,372 road accidents and 2,163 fatalities of which Lusaka Province alone accounted for 17,774, the country's highest toll, while Eastern Province, with Chipata as capital, recorded 1,151.
“We’re doing something right with bicycle transit,” boasts Mr. Nayombe.
In addition, the air in Chipata is said to be cleaner than the air in other cities. “Chipata has escaped the heavy air pollution of Lusaka due to its low car density,” says Misheck Nashilongo, an ecologist and a public-air quality supervisor at the Ministry of Water Development, Sanitation and Environmental Protection.
Despite the thousands of jobs created through bicycle transit business, young boys in Chipata are abandoning formal education to pedal bicycles, becoming breadwinners for their families.
“It’s a brewing crisis,” warns Najoba Zulu, a secondary school teacher who says about 10 teenage boys from her class are lured away from classrooms by the daily cash from bicycle taxis every year.
In 2018, the Education Policy Data Center found that 28 per cent of Zambians ages 15-24 did not complete primary education. While the bicycle taxi business is not squarely to blame for the school dropout rate nationwide, it is nonetheless a factor in Chipata.
“I’d like to see a municipal policy that bans boys who have not finished secondary school from operating bicycle taxis in Chipata,” Ms. Zulu recommends.
Despite such concerns, commuters in Chipata say that bicycles are the heartbeat of their city. “Bicycles give me peace of mind,” says Maureen Langa, a mother and a resident of the city.