The Economy of Minibuses in Malawi

On a free Saturday, I travelled to Limbe, a place I was told never to go, from downtown Blantyre. A series of minibus changes took me in the true market center of Malawi, where miles upon miles of jury-rigged stands sell just about everything you could ever want, at least within the confines of what can be bought in Malawi. The public transportation system here is a complex network of private mini-bus owners, who all have their own routes which they travel daily. I cannot express more my enthusiasm for the African mini-bus.

In true African fashion, there is no set bus schedule; you just wait somewhere and one will show up. Business is so brisk that countless bus owners will drive the same route, meaning that your wait-time usually doesn’t exceed more than 30 seconds. Where the Brits failed to institute a true public transportation infrastructure, the Malawians (and all of Sub-Saharan Africa) have stepped up themselves to create an efficient and working transportation network that, despite its haggard and ramshackle appearance, works incredibly well, almost better than anything comparable in the US.

Despite the apparent chaos of the mini-bus “system”, there is a method to this madness. Buses must line up at “stations” where people transfer routes. Buses are not allowed to leave until those who came first have already embarked. It’s a self-policing system. Bus drivers who attempt to leave out of turn are summarily scolded by other drivers on break and told to wait. Most important is respecting order on “the line.” Buses congregate in main hubs such as in Limbe or Blantyre, enter the queue and wait their turn to begin making their routes. Line managers are present to make sure that order is maintained and that no bus exits out of turn. Walking through these areas is harrowing. Buses lurch and move everywhere. You can get lost in the middle of this densely packed mass of white minibuses.

Locally in Blantyre, travelling by minibus is exceedingly cheap and efficient although frequent trips to the gas station slow one down. They mostly operate on the “cup of gas” philosophy of Pilipino guerilla director Kimlat Tahimik. Bus drivers get enough gas to get them through their route, make some more money, and then get a little more, stopping at dedicated petrol stations which cater almost exclusively to minibuses. In the event of the frequent gas shortages which plague Malawi, public transportation grinds to a screeching halt and the money ceases to flow.

Bus routes in the United States are created by planners, whose goals often do not include actual demands by ridership, but rather cater to the broad and self-interested political goals of planners and developers. In Malawi, although roads and highways were created by governmental administrative powers, the lack of transportation planning has resulted in market driven network of convenient routes, fueled by rider demand and actual connections between residential area and market centers. Minibus operators will quickly respond to changes within the market, creating new routes on the fly. Everyone is in search of new opportunities to make money and will respond accordingly.

People on the street are well familiar with the routes, and can tell you the series of changes you need to make to get to whatever destination throughout the country. It’s a free-marketers dream, though governmental bodies have stepped in to control gridlock by restricting minibus transport through certain areas. Responding to a series of grisly accidents, the Malawian government has instituted rules guaranteeing that minibuses respect a maximum of 28 people per bus. Police regularly enforce passenger limits. Police checkpoints are common throughout Malawi and minibuses are common targets.

Prices may have settled to an optimal equilibrium based on what locals will pay, but it doesn’t appear that there is any bidding for jobs. Standards set by the Malawi Minibus Association insure that all buses offer standard prices, but almost all drivers offer the exact same discounted price to insure that fares don’t start walking instead. Competition through extra services is non-existent. There are no air conditioned minibuses, no special sound systems, you don’t pay extra for a bus that doesn’t spew black smoke into the cab. Most of all there is no competition through aesthetics. Every bus retains its original boring white delivery style, or the markings of whatever Japanese old folks home it served in a previous life.

The minibus system is an entirely privately run, minimally regulated, independent contractor based capitalist system, similar to the ways that taxi companies run in the United States. Entrepreneurs own a fleet of buses, and drivers pay a flat daily rate for each bus. They get to keep everything they make beyond the daily rental fee. While there are a limited number of minibus entrepreneurs, there doesn’t seem to be any hint of competition. Resources such as gasoline may be limited, but customers are not. The concept of a “market share” is almost unheard of here but the minibus industry in Malawi is exclusively Malawian. While every other business in Malawi is foreign owned, there are a few that are rabidly protected. It was told to me that if a foreigner were to start a minibus company, no one would ride it, the buses would be vandalized and the operators would likely become the victims of violence.

It’s been said that Americans are the most entrepreneurial people on the planet. This is, of course, absolute nonsense. Nearly 95% of Americans work for someone else for a fixed hourly wage or a steady paycheck. More than 90% of Africans on the other hand, are self-employed. People will create goods on a scale unheard of in the states for sale at local market centers or along the highway systems. People will sell just about anything that can be sold, and offer whatever services they can, to capitalize on unmet market demands. Malawians will work 24 hours a day if they have to; poverty dictates that no job is to be turned down, as another might never come again. Even a call to a sleeping taxi driver at 4 a.m. will result in not a single complaint and a dependable ride at a regular price.

Most notable is the important role that the minibus plays in keeping Malawi’s economy and culture moving. Not only does the minibus connect people all over the country with markets, work opportunities and general transportation, but the very fabric of Malawian social and family connections are tightly woven through the routes of the minibus transportation system. Goods are happily delivered to family members and friends through the help of minibus drivers, who often are on first name bases with their passengers. Drivers will go out of their way to deliver some charcoal to the grandmother of a random passenger, sometime at great personal loss. Messages and social connections are secured through the constant contact drivers and passengers have with friends and family at the hundreds of stops littered throughout the country. It may not be the fastest means of transport for long distances, and the roughshod driving of minibus operators may be the bane of regular highway drivers, but the importance of the minibus cannot be denied.

Here’s a short video I made about the Malawian minibus:

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

14 responses to “The Economy of Minibuses in Malawi”

  1. John Hicks says :

    Enjoyed the video, Pete!

  2. John Hicks says :

    And the story!

  3. CLEMENT CHITENJE PHIRI says :

    True to what u have said and it really showed u were in MALAWI the warm heart of AFRICA where its pple are friendly

  4. Pete Larson says :

    It is very true my friend, Malawi is full of very friendly people and earns its name very well. I can’t wait to go back again!

  5. Ferunando-desu says :

    Hey Pete, next time you will need to take a jeepney. Best;

    Luis

  6. Pete Larson says :

    Yes, that sounds like a plan. We must make it happen one day!

  7. Noboru says :

    I was surprise to find that there is a similar African minibus system in Russia! Using same Japanese mini-vans. I am waiting for the flight for lilongwe, already 30 min past, no announcement. I like the slow life in Malawi.

  8. Pete Larson says :

    Those HiAce buses are incredible vehicles. I wonder how Japan can keep up enough supply for the entire world!

    I agree, the slow pace of Malawi is very welcome.

  9. Mphatso says :

    Thanks for visiting Malawi.
    I have to say I also would have enjoyed a visit, but, mine is a stay and a life here and that is when you start to see the dirtiness, greed and corruption.
    Maybe on the outside it looks all good but its a pain.

  10. Mphatso says :

    Hey, thanks for visiting Malawi.
    I have to say I also would have enjoyed a visit, but, mine is a stay and a life here and that is when you start to see the dirtiness, greed and corruption.
    Maybe on the outside it looks all good but its a pain.

  11. Pete Larson says :

    Hey man,

    I love Malawi, though I understand your point. Every place has challenges though, even here in the wealthiest country on earth (no health care, poor schools, poverty, political corruption, you name it!). How people respond to those challenges is important, I think. Malawi, despite a lack of resources, responds quite well and you should be very proud.

    I hope to visit again, soon.

    Pete

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