In the good old days, a taxi owner would be assured of at least Rwf15,000 per day and Twegerane was the dream business for many discerning Rwandans. Jean de la Croix Tabaro writes that today, a driver of this 18-seater taxi would be lucky to gross Rwf3,000 in a day.
When I met Jean-Bosco Nizeyimana at Kimironko Taxi Park three weeks ago, he had been contemplating returning the 18-seater (commonly known as twegerane) he has driven for the last couple of years to its owner.
His decision is not because the vehicle has an irreparable mechanical fault or that Nizeyimana has found himself a better job, but rather the middle-aged man can no longer make money using a taxi that for several years has been the main source of livelihood for three families—his own, the conductor’s plus that of the owner, Emmanuel Kayiranga.
Suddenly, Kigali City, the country’s business hub and where every starter believes is where their dreams can come true, is becoming a difficult place for drivers, conductors and owners of the small mini buses to do business in.
In the past, Nizeyimana deposited Rwf 15,000 on his boss’ account each day of the week and remained with a balance of Rwf 6,000 for himself even after paying his conductor a daily wage of Rwf3,000. But at the close of business on a Friday evening, he had Rwf 1,500 for himself, Rwf1,000 for the conductor and nothing for Kayiranga.
The situation had been the same for the last two weeks before we met and Kayiranga, the taxi owner, did not think that his worker was cheating him because he had worked with him for a long time. He encouraged him to keep trying, but Ninzeyimana seems to be running out of patience.
“Finally, he brought back the vehicle saying that he is no longer making money and he did not want to give me false hope. I just told him to be patient and keep on trying even though he is no longer bringing money. My hope is that he may one day earn something for me,” Kayiranga said last week.
Twegerane used to be a dream business for most Rwandans with some money because it was a good cash cow, whose return on investment remained well above average. Drivers too loved it because it guaranteed good earnings on a daily basis—earning a decent living for three families of the driver, conductor and the owner.
However, trouble for twegerane owners and operators started on August 30, when the City of Kigali and Rwanda Utility Regulatory Authority signed a contract with three transport companies to provide public transport services to commuters in the four designated zones of the city.
According to the contract, only buses and 30-seater coasters are to operate ion the main roads while twegerane may only ply intra and inter zone routes.That means that twegerane were basically prohibited from operating main routes such as Kimironko-Nyabugogo, Remera-Nyabugogo and Kicukiro-Nyabugogo. Yet these are the routes with a large number of passengers.
The mini bus owners claim that, with these new and shorter destinations that have fewer passengers, there is no business for them. In fact, they would rather park the vehicles instead of wasting fuel driving them empty.
For example, another driver found at Kimironko Taxi Park said he had made two trips to Kibagabaga and earned only Rwf 3,000 by 5pm and spent Rwf 2,000 on fuel.
“I am expecting to make some more little money since it is now rush hour. I may earn Rwf 3,000 tonight which I will share with my conductor,” he said.
On this route there are more than 20 taxis competing for the few passengers who trickle in. They often go to Kibagabaga full, but returned to Kimironko Taxi Park almost empty.
“My main concern is that, no one can buy this vehicle, because it is no longer a good business,” said a man who has owned a taxi for the last 10 years. His mini bus was worth about Rwf 5 million last year, but today no body can buy it even for Rwf 2.5 million.
Another mini bus owner, Eric Kaneza last year started building a house and expected to secure a loan of Rwf 1 million this year to erect a perimeter wall and some finishings. His calculation was that the daily income from the taxi would service the loan. He has since shelved the plan because he won’t afford the debt. Banks too are reluctant to accept twegerane as collateral.
“We are now reluctant to take projects of public transport, except for coasters with 30 seats. Most of our mini bus clients are finding it difficult to pay, so we cannot grant similar loans any more. The new public transport system affected our business as well,” said a bank manager in Kigali on condition of anonymity.
Kaneza remembers the good old days of 2008, during the presidential elections, when his twegerane brought home Rwf 40,000 daily for four days.
“By then we were allowed to go wherever we wanted, and could make good money,” he said.
Today, Kaneza says he remains on the road because his car insurance cover is still valid.
“But when it expires, I will not afford to renew it. I will just park.”
For twegerane to operate, the owner must buy insurance cover of about Rwf 300,000 per year, and a technical control of Rwf 45,000.
The plea the drivers and car owners are making to the city of Kigali is to let them return to the main routes. This is however unlikely to happen as the three operators that won the contract plan to import 100 more new buses to boost their fleet. The new buses will be in the country by December.
As the city embraces a new public transport system, it appears the era of twegerane in Kigali is all but over.