One of the most unexpected spin-offs of the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda has been on the country’s roads. After both public and private transport was banned toward the end of March for all non-essential personnel to help curb the spread of the virus, people looked to other options to get around. One immediate alternative was peddle power. Waves of bicycles are now wheeling their way across the country.
Muzamir Kakande, a bicycle dealer in Uganda’s capital Kampala, unofficially estimates that seven in 10 bikes sold in Uganda are from China.
“Just go out on the streets and see how many China-made bicycles are being ridden,” he said, adding that every three months, he travels to China to buy around 500 bicycles which he brings back to Kampala. He also supplies several other outlets across the country.
More bikes imported
Susan Kataike, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Works and Transport of Uganda, told ChinAfrica that it is not surprising that most of the bicycles in the country are made in China.
“It’s not surprising that most of the bicycles sold in Uganda are from China. Just like most of the goods in the markets in Uganda are from China,” said Kataike, adding that the majority of those who own bicycles from China say they are happy with them.
“When the government banned vehicle transport due to the coronavirus, many people bought bicycles. It was a blessing in disguise as far as making people start using bicycles as a means of transport, as advocated by our president [Yoweri Museveni],” she said.
Uganda’s statistics authority indicated that 32 percent of homesteads in the country own at least one bicycle.
Imports of non-motorized bicycles from China was $561,370 during 2018, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade.
Uganda’s Minister of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives Amelia Kyambadde said that importation of bicycles from China is one of the country’s booming businesses.
“Some of the bicycles from China are assembled here because they are bought in pieces, [and shipped] in containers. Others are imported as assembled pieces. It is a big business,” she said.
Value for money
The COVID-19 lockdown paved the way for dealers in new and second-hand bicycle business to achieve bumper sales. In most bicycle shops, stocks had run out by early April.
But this is not the first time that China-made bicycles have sold like hot cakes in the country. A few years ago, with the improvement in the economy, many wealthy parents started buying bicycles for their children. That prompted some businessmen to start importing new and second-hand bicycles from China. So since around 2010, dealers in the bicycle business have been profiting from selling reasonably big numbers of bicycles, especially for children and sports.
“Admiration and mass acquisition of Chinese bicycles is not a new phenomenon in the country,” said 75-year-old bike user Wilberforce Odong.
Odong said that before 1970, almost all the bicycles in Uganda were imported from England, with the most popular being the Raleigh brand. However, around that time, Kilembe Copper Smelting Co. in the east Ugandan town of Jinja, where he worked, imported 100 Chinese bicycles for its workers.
“Around 1972, Chinese bicycles called Phoenix were bought for us by our company. They were durable and looked beautiful. Local people admired and liked the Chinese bicycles which led to some business people starting to import them from China,” recalls Odong.
He said that because Phoenix bicycles’ prices were affordable, they soon became the most popular in the country. “The money used to buy one Raleigh bicycle was enough to purchase at least two Phoenix bicycles, yet they were of high quality. Therefore, many people ended up buying the bicycles from China.”
“For some time, many people, including children and women, have been riding bicycles made in China for leisure and transport. In the countryside, bicycles are used to carry foodstuffs and firewood to towns and trading centers,” said William Waiswa, a local council chairman of Bugadha Village in east Uganda, one of the areas where every home has at least one bicycle.
He said that a Phoenix bicycle from China, which is a popular brand, can be used to carry a weight of over 200 kg.
Ugandan President Museveni has also helped the popularity of Chinese bicycles in the country. On many occasions during his speeches, he has been advising Ugandans that riding bicycles is healthy and cost effective. In some of his addresses, Museveni has been emphasizing the importance of people resorting to use bicycles as a means of transport.
“It is healthier to use a bicycle than public transport. If the towns had enough bicycles by now, I would have suspended public transport. I will encourage our brothers from China to start making them here,” he said.
Most bicycle mechanics have become specialists in fixing Chinese bicycles. Faustin Wande, who operates a repair shop at Mpererwe Trading Center 10 km from Kampala, said that most of his business comes from older Chinese bicycles.
“Over time I have become an expert as far as repairing bicycles from China is concerned. In a day, I can get 10 bicycle repairs, at least six of which are Chinese brands.”
“My father bought me this Flying Pigeon brand bicycle made in China. I like it because it is easy to maneuver and, in the last three years, it has required no major repair,” said 17-year-old Martin Mbabule, a high school student in Kampala.
A female bicycle rider Maureen Nakayi has a Trinx brand bicycle made in China, which she enjoys because “it was made specifically for ladies.”
At Kampala’s city suburb of Kireka, some young men have formed the Kireka Cycling Club made up of more than 30 members. The chairman of the association Ruben Odinga said most of the members own bicycles imported from China.
“Of the 30 bicycles owned by our members, 20 are made in China. One of the major reasons why they buy them is that the prices are affordable, yet they are durable,” said Odinga.
Simon Mukwanga, a trade officer in the Kampala City Council, said that unlike the past when only new bicycles were imported into the country, nowadays even second-hand bicycles are imported.
“Since new bicycles are expensive, some innovative businessmen started importing second-hand bicycles from China. That has made it possible for both wealthy and ordinary people to have the opportunity of owning bicycles,” said Mukwanga.
However, the high demand and economic impact of COVID-19 has raised the costs of bicycles from China, according to Mukwanga. He said a new bicycle that used to sell at around 300,000 Uganda shillings ($82) is now sold at 450,000 shillings ($123). A second-hand bicycle that used to be sold on average at 200,000 Uganda shillings ($54) now costs about 300,000 Uganda shillings.