Zimbabwe’s public transport sector has for a very long time been served by private and informal operators, with most of them using 14- to 35-seat minibuses, as is the case in a lot of African countries. These small minibuses are known as kombis in Zimbabwe. In South Africa they are popularly known as taxis, and in Kenya they are known as matatus. Zimbabwe’s public transport sector is best described as chaotic at the moment due to several seasons. One of the main reasons that led to the current chaos was a government ban on these private operators at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, thereby giving the state operator, Zupco, the sole mandate to offer urban commuter services. The problem is, the state operator has nowhere near enough buses to cater for the number of daily commuters in Zimbabwe’s urban centers.
This has resulted in commuters waiting several hours just to get a bus to and from work, school, or just to get around the urban centers. This has also resulted in the proliferation of illegal taxi operators known as “Mushika-Shikas’’ who use small hatchbacks such as the very popular Honda Fit or station wagons like the Toyota Wish. These “pirate taxis” are not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe and have been active since the 1980s when the go-to vehicle back then was the Peugeot 404! It just goes to show that the public transport system in Zimbabwe has been an issue for a very long time. The chaos gets a lot worse during the periods when Zimbabwe experiences its periodic petrol and diesel shortages due chronic foreign currency shortages and other factors.
The government recently announced that it intends to end the 2-year ban and will open the public transport system to other players. We can only wait to see if this will solve the chaos that has been going on for decades. Zimbabwe generally has some of the most expensive fuel in the southern African region. Right now, the price of petrol is US$1.64 per liter and diesel is US$1.71 per liter. The average daily commute distance in the large urban centers is around 15 kilometers, as cited in Zimbabwe’s Transport Master Plan. Cheaper forms of transport not dependent on these expensive and sometimes hard to find fossil fuels could provide a viable alternative for some commuters with short commutes.
Historically, when Zimbabwean residents who can afford it face prolonged problems due to a lack of a critical service or inadequate service such as prolonged periods without water from the responsible entities, they will install their own water storage tanks or drill their own boreholes in their back yards. Similarly, citizens install rooftop solar systems coupled with battery storage systems to shield themselves from the now too common power rationing load-shedding regime that the utility company has been implementing as it battles to meet demand. Will the prolonged transport chaos now also give rise to a new industry just like the water supply issues and the electricity rationing drama resulted in a boom in the borehole drilling and residential solar industry? Could electric scooters and motorcycles for personal mobility take off to fill the void?
Unlike in Asia, where a lot of people use scooters for personal mobility, or more closer to home in east Africa where motorcycles are used as taxis, the 2-wheeler market for personal mobility does not exist in Zimbabwe. But with such short commutes (on average 15 km), electric scooters could provide an efficient and affordable option for some. The generally low electricity tariffs in Zimbabwe (usually just under 10 USD cents/kWh) mean that the “fuel” cost of electric scooters will be way cheaper than for the average commuter fare on the Mushika-Shikas or Kombis (when they come back). Depending on the route, the average public transport fare is around 50 cents. These informal/pirate operators also implement a form of “surge pricing” depending on demand, route, time, and weather conditions, meaning that at times commuters can even pay more than $1 each way on those routes.
Assuming these scooters will have a 2kWh battery, one would need just about 20 USD cents to charge them to full for a range of about 40 km depending on the type of scooter. Right now, the electricity tariff in Zimbabwe is actually 2 cents per kWh due to the rapid deterioration of the Zimbabwean currency against the US dollar. That means a full charge would only cost 4 USD cents! which is basically getting around for free once you have acquired a scooter. Most of the electric scooters now available have removable lithium-ion batteries that can be charged using a standard home socket. These batteries usually take around 4 hours to charge, therefore, there will be more than enough time to charge them overnight when the electricity comes back after the peak demand periods when the utility company would be implementing rolling blackouts to manage the scarce power generation capacity. The batteries can also be charged using small residential solar PV systems.
Zimbabwe’s urban commuter transport blues aren’t going away anytime soon, but electric scooters could be an option for some commuters. It will require a huge culture shift in a country where 2-wheelers have traditionally been confined to delivery duties for parcels and mail. Perhaps the college students and young graduates could be a market to target as a starting point.
Siemens Stiftung’s “Testing E-Mobility Business Models at WE Hub Victoria Limited in Kenya” report aptly highlights the importance of mobility in the introduction section of the report by stating that “Mobility is the basis for the overall development of a society: it gives the population access to jobs, markets, social facilities, and health care. In addition, mobility itself creates jobs and plays an important role in environmental protection as the mobility sector is one of the main contributors to CO2 emissions.” A dysfunctional public transport system therefore slows down or inhibits the development of a society. A dysfunctional transport system in an already struggling economy will only add to the issues and delay recovery.
Featured image by Remeredzai Kuhudzai
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