“I am married. I have a wife, but I treat this bicycle as the second wife because I love it. It helps me a lot because even when I was still working it was my fare (commute) to and from work. And now it is not even the fare, it is the provider now.”
Meet Isaac Tindi, who until two months ago was a machine operator at a beauty products manufacturing company in Nairobi. He is currently on unpaid leave. The company he was working for is closed indefinitely as businesses across the world continue to feel the impact of restricted movement and disrupted supply chains due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two months ago, having learned that he would no longer be getting a salary, Isaac made what seemed as the obvious decision: to use his bicycle for short distance taxi business to provide for his family until work resumes or until he finds a better alternative.
“I am somehow lucky to have this bicycle,” he tells me, “this is like the provider, like the man of the house in my family now. What about my colleagues who did not have anything – who, right now have gone two months without a salary – how are they coping?”
A bicycle is an important asset in the Outering Circuit – the transport zone in Eastern Nairobi where Isaac lives. A 2014 report by Green Africa Initiative and UNEP, records Nairobi’s highest usage of bicycles, double that of other zones surveyed, within the outering circuit. This, the report explains, is because of its orientation towards industrial area.
For many workers living in the numerous low-income neighbourhoods in the area, bicycles are a reliable way to beat the morning and evening traffic that is synonymous with the area and a cheaper alternative to the high fares charged by public transport vehicles. Those who do not have their own bicycles mostly take the bicycle taxis which charge roughly a third of public transport bus fare, and half that of their motorcycle counterparts.
“My clients are mostly people looking for cheaper and faster transportation between Kayole and the industrial area,” Isaac explains, adding that early morning and evening are the busiest times in his business.
A father of two boys and one girl, Isaac says the biggest challenge for many people who have lost their jobs or are on unpaid leave like him, is getting food for their families – something his bicycle has enabled him to do well so far. “What I get in the morning I use to buy breakfast and bring that home. When I work in the evening, I get supper,” he tells me, adding that he is no longer able to shop in bulk for the month as he used to and instead is living hand to mouth but proud to be able to provide for his family.
On a good day Isaac makes up to 700 shillings or $7, but this sometimes drops to 200 shillings or 2 dollars when work is low. Whatever he gets, he says he is able to put food on the table for his family as a priority, before he thinks of saving for rent and other costs. “Many landlords understand the situation” he says, “most of them will give you a little more time to pay.”
Bicycles mean freedom
Like Isaac, many Africans, especially in the rural areas, rely heavily on bicycles for their livelihoods, to access markets, education, healthcare and to connect with each other. In Uganda, bicycles have been used to empower women to participate more effectively in the economy. In Zambia, they have been used to increase girls’ access to education. As the World Economic Forum has explained, bicycles are also tools of freedom for women across Africa.
For Isaac, cycling is a way to clear his mind from the pressures of dramatic shifts in his economic situation; it is a kind of a safety net for times like this and an effective way to grow his savings in the good times when he uses the bicycle as his daily commute. On World Bicycle Day, he says city authorities need to invest in creation of cycling lanes to make cycling safer for residents.