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Asia's tuk-tuks providing a wheel boost to Africa
[MONROVIA] Omnipresent on the chaotic streets of Mumbai, Jakarta and Bangkok, Asia's three-wheeled 'tuk-tuk' has now come to Africa - and with a two-fold bonus: providing much-needed jobs and slashing accidents.
Cheap to run and safer than the traditional motorcycle taxi, the auto-rickshaw is an increasingly common sight trundling along the traffic-choked streets of the continent's sprawling capitals.
Known in Tanzania and Ethiopia as 'bajaj', in Egypt as 'toktok', in Nigeria as 'keke-marwa' and in Sudan as 'raksha', the tuk-tuk has now hit Liberia, where delighted locals have christened their own version the 'kekeh'.
Motorcycle taxis, known locally as 'two-tires', were the go-to means of public transport in Liberia's capital Monrovia until lawmakers outlawed them in 2013 amid concerns over reckless riding and the high toll of accidents.
The ban paved the way for the kekeh, imported from India and China by numerous operators, mostly Nigerian and Guinean, who employ young Liberians.
"What's making the kekeh very important... is (that) we are looking at a huge transport challenge in our country," said Jenkins Zayzay, secretary-general of the Liberia Motorcycle and Tricycle Association (LIMTCA).
"You had the two-tires that were running in the city centre before, but because of government regulations, we had to introduce another form or some level of job employment for the young people.
"So it was decided that we had to introduce the kekeh."
India produces around 800,000 motorised rickshaws a year, more than a third of which end up in foreign cities.
The country's TVS King - which has a presence in 30 African countries - has a four-stroke, single cylinder 200cc engine which runs on petrol, or the more environmentally friendly compressed natural gas.
Huasha, based in the southern Chinese city of Jiangmen, is producing its own version which looks more like the front end of a motorbike towing a two-wheel passenger trailer.
LIMTCA says kekehs have generated 5,000 jobs for Monrovians, many of whom were made unemployed by the motorcycle taxi ban.
"It's helping our economy immensely. Number one, it generates revenue for the government and it serves as opportunity for employment for the young people," says Zayzay.
A new kekeh will cost the aspiring driver US$3,500, or they can be hired at a daily rate of around US$25.
Operators say the three-wheelers are tightly regulated when it comes to following the highway code and the number of passengers they can carry, meaning accidents have been cut drastically. Not only do the tuk-tuks move at slower speeds than the motorbike taxis, their sheet-metal frames offer more protection.
According to a statement by the Liberian National Police, motorbike accidents had dropped by 90 per cent since the ban was introduced on using them as taxis, though there were no specific figures.
At just 25 US cents a journey, the kekeh is also seen as a more accessible means of transport than the traditional taxi, which is out of reach for thousands of Monrovians who might otherwise have to walk long distances to work.
"I use the kekeh every day because I take a ride to go to my house and to come back to sell," says trader Akoi Jallah.
A regulatory body called the Joint Implementation Committee also provides workshops in Monrovia where kekeh drivers can learn how to ply the streets safely.
Francis Mulbah, a 23-year-old driver circling Monrovia's Redlight market in search of customers, says around 1,000 kekehs are operating in Monrovia, each permitted to carry three passengers.
"In town, in town... Who is going to the city? Two more seats," he yells intermittently as he explains how the trade has improved his life.
"When the government decided to move bikes from the streets, some of us lost our jobs," he says.
"But I kept confidence in myself that though this decision has been passed, God can still help me to make an impact in our nation."