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Photo caption: A moto-taxi driver in Kigali earns a good income. Classes help the "piki-piki" drivers become small-scale entrepreneurs. (Jon Rosen/GlobalPost)
MUSAMBIRA, Rwanda — Like many of his peers inside the dimly lit classroom, Valens Mimoni has seen a hardscrabble life in this sleepy hilltop town.
Born to a family of small-scale farmers, Mimoni finished primary school in his 20s, learning neither French nor English — languages generally required for work in Rwanda’s formal sector. Lacking the means for secondary school, he eked out a living for five years ferrying passengers on the back of a clunky, steel-framed bicycle.
Now, seeking a more reliable income, Mimoni has decided to trade-in his brawn for an engine and join the ranks of the “piki piki” — Rwanda’s 10,000-strong contingent of taxi motorcycle drivers. Before taking his driving test, he’s attending a four-month course run by the Rwanda Federation of Taxi Motorcycle Drivers, the governing body of two-wheeled motorists across the country.
“Once I become a taxi-moto driver, I’ll be able to earn a high income immediately,” he told GlobalPost in his native Kinyarwanda.
Motorcycle taxis are common throughout East Africa, and in Rwanda they are everywhere. In the capital, Kigali, green-helmeted bikers congregate outside shopping centers and cruise the tree-lined streets in search of fares.
Charging significantly less than traditional taxis, they maneuver through congestion when traffic is heavy. At night, they zoom along open roads giving the thrill of a moonlit amusement park ride.
Compared to their peers in neighboring countries, Rwandan motorists are highly organized. All are required to join one of 30 local taxi-moto cooperatives — each part of the national federation — and sport vests with numbers that make them easily identifiable. Rwandan law requires that helmets be worn by both driver and passenger, and both are emblazoned with a number to call in case of reckless driving.
Such order is a product of the rigid discipline imposed by Rwandan president Paul Kagame's government, according to Dieudonne Nteziyaremye, president of the taxi motorcycle drivers federation.
“In 2006, the government banned taxi-motos because drivers were not organized,” he said. “Many didn’t have their papers in order. Some were caught stealing handbags from women. But we cleaned things up and they allowed us to continue. Now we have visitors from other countries coming to study what we are doing.”
Critical to his federation’s success, says Nteziyaremye, is the education it offers both aspiring and veteran moto drivers.
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Novice motorists like Mimoni spend three months in a classroom studying driving law, road safety and customer service, and one month learning driving technique and basic mechanics. Once they are members of the federation, drivers have access to English lessons, an HIV/AIDS awareness program and financial planning workshops.
Though many begin by renting motorcycles from private investors, 70 percent eventually purchase their own bikes, often with loans from a microfinance cooperative. The typical motorcycle — hardly of American biker gang proportions — is imported from India and costs about $2,000.
“We really try to educate them to save money, take out loans and buy their own motos,” said Nteziyaremye. “Some of our drivers are orphans, and most have a limited education before coming to us. Our ambition is to help them become real entrepreneurs.”
For those who are persistent, the “piki piki” life can bring a reliable income — about as good as one can hope for without a secondary school degree.
Damas Habimana, a moto driver for the past five years, says on a good day he brings in the equivalent of $15 after fuel costs — not bad in a country where the United Nations estimates 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
Living in Kigali, Habimana’s expenses are much higher than drivers’ in the countryside, yet he’s saved enough to put himself partway through secondary school and make a down payment on a house.
Like most moto drivers, Habimana, 27, says he doesn’t plan to ride his bike forever. Eventually, he hopes to become a commercial driver, where he can earn a higher salary, and work fewer hours than his current 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. regimen. It’s the type of career move Nteziyaremye says his federation encourages — both for professional development and to allow space for new drivers to enter the workforce.
Some motorists, including Habimana, say moto supply is growing faster than demand, which threatens the incomes of existing drivers.
“Nowadays, motorists are too many,” said Habimana. “It wasn’t like this before. It used to be easy to drive around and find customers, but now I rely more on clients who know me and will call me to drive them.”
Despite this outlook, Mimoni says he’s confident he’ll find plenty of clients in Musambira, a town where bicycle taxis — nowhere to be found in Kigali — remain the dominant form of transportation.
His teacher, Betty Maniraguha, is also optimistic. Though Rwanda has made great strides in women’s rights and even has a female majority in parliament, the country has just three female taxi-moto drivers. But Maniraguha is confident there will soon be more.
“I know how to ride a moto,” she said during a break in her lecture on driving laws, delivered to Mimoni and seven other young men.
“Soon, I plan to become a driver too.”