The three-wheeler taxis, made in India, first came to Ethiopia in 2005. They have become very popular as a convenient method of transport in regional cities, but are now proving more popular in certain parts of the capital too. With city authorities not deeming them suitable for a metropolis the size of Addis Abeba, it is likely that they will eventually be pushed back out to other regions, reports HIWOT SEYOUM, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER
Until nine years ago, the public transport system in Ethiopia was limited to minibuses and buses. In 2005, however, the three-wheeled auto-Rickshaw, commonly referred as Bajaj, came on to the scene, in Dire Dawa town, 515km from Addis Abeba.
Over the years, the vehicle has become increasingly popular as an alternative transport option in major regional towns, proving to be a potent competitor to the traditionally dominant minibus and Lada taxis.
Bajaj Auto came into existence in India as Bachraj Trading Co Ltd on November 29, 1945. The Company got a license to manufacture the two and three-wheeler motor vehicles locally in 1959. Currently, the company distributes its product in 16 countries.
The Company sold more than 480,000 three wheelers in the 2012-13 fiscal year alone, according to the Company.
In recent years, however, the three-wheeled vehicles have begun penetrating Addis Abeba, expanding from Akaki and Sebeta in Oromia on the outskirts of the city, to Ayat and other peripheral areas dominated by gharries or horse-drawn carriges.
“The Bajaj came when they were most needed,” recalls Berhanu Hussein, 35, who has been driving the vehicle for three years.
Berhanu, formerly a laboratory technician at Addis Abeba University (AAU), with a salary of 1,500 Br, moved over to owning his own Bajaj to offer a taxi service, because he saw others “reaping profits”. There are now 26 drivers in his route which extends from Sidist Kilo to the locality called Eyesus in Gulele district.
“The difference between my income then and now is visible,” he says.
Berhanu joined the few drivers at the time after buying a Bajaj taxi for 74,000 Br three years ago.He now makes anywhere between 350 Br and 400 Br in a day, while fuel costs him 100 Br. Life with his wife and two children, he says, has been easier and more affordable since then.
Zekarias Kone, 28, another Bajaj owner along the same route purchased his Bajaj with 65,000 Br three years ago. His savings at the Addis Credit & Saving Institution has now reached 60,000 Br. He hopes to save enough (470,000 Br) to buy a minibus.
Zekarias and other Bajaj drivers approached by Fortune agree that commuters scramble to travel from one spot to another in Bajaj taxis not for its comfort, but because of the transport chaos in the city.
“It is far from comfortable,” Genet Asmerom, 38, a commuter in the Eyesus area, complains. “Commuters sit in a congested space, unable to even pull out money from their pockets.”
Although only allowed three people on board-all on the seat behind the driver – the drivers and owners often add two more, flanking the driver.
“Sitting next to the driver used to bother me about two years ago,” recalls Assegid Yemane, another commuter in the area. “But I have now grown more and more used to it.”
Some users complain of the discomfort of the smallseats and the likelihood of an accident, which they feel is higher with Bajaj’s.
Despite such complaints, however, those in the business are working to expand in some places. HAHU Bajaj, an association of 33 Bajaj taxi drivers and owners using the route from the Gofa Mabrat Hayl and Gofa Condominium, both down south in Lafto District, strictly enforces each member to make a five birr a day or 150 Br a month contribution.
“The Association plans to open a spare parts shop and cafeteria for members,” says Habtamu Yohannes, chairperson of the Association. “It is in the process of securing a plot from woreda authorities.”
Fasil Belachew,24, has been in the business for four years at the Gofa condominium, with a used Bajaj he bought for 54,000Br. Four years on, Yegerem Getachew bought another used vehicle, with an Addis Abeba number plate, for 104,000 Br. The price hike was because the city had stopped issuing new plates for these vehicles.
At Tagrow Bajaj, with a considerable command in the Bajaj market, the price of a three-wheel vehicle has escalated to 92,000 Br, from 27,000 Br in 2005.
Growing demand for transportation explains the increase in price, Yegerem says.
Tagrow distributes the vehicles to its 250 agents throughout the country. The Addis Abeba City Administration’s Transport Bureau says it has registered 865 Bajaj vehicles to date.
Within four years of starting the business, Fasil Belachew, who had bought his Bajaj for 54,000 Br, has built a 200,000 Br house for his family.
While the Bajaj owner on the Sidist Kilo-Eyesus route has aspirations toupgrade to a minibus, Daniel Tamru, 23, has moved from being a hired driver for a mini-bus taxi, to the same position but on a Bajaj. These drivers say that the spare part costs could be as much as four times less for a Bajaj. The Bajaj’s can also go twice the distance for the same amount of fuel.
“Add to this the fact that Bajaj taxi drivers are not as heavily fined by traffic police,” Daniel argues.
The hired drivers pass on150 Br a day from the revenue, and spend 120 to 150 Br for fuel. They use revenues from the transport to pay for their meals and have an average of 100 Br a day to take home.
The city stands by its position of stopping to issue new number plates and to restrict their routes to peripheral areas.
“No new entrants are needed,” argues Wegayhu Assefa, Transport Operations Core Process head at the Transport Bureau. “The Bajaj vehicles should not be allowed to cruise on the roads of a metropolitan city like Addis Abeba.”
The Bureau has stopped issuing plates with the view to curtail the proliferation of Bajaj taxis.
“We believe that they will move out of the city and gradually cease to exist,” Wegayehu says.
The Bureau has never been involved in setting tariffs and mapping out routes for the Bajaj taxis.
“If the Bureau gets involved in regulating the Bajaj, it will be considered an act of recognising the legality of the three-wheel vehicles,” Wegayehu argued.
Despite this, however, commuters and owners continue to use the vehicles for their respective advantages, with the shortage of transport serving them both as the main trigger.
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