Nora Lindstrom

Formalisation of minibuses in Lilongwe proposed as means to ease transportation problems

Nora Lindstrom, Lilongwe Community Manager


Lilongwe is a city of pedestrians. It has been estimated that some ten thousand people walk along its busy M1 motorway every day. Lilongwe is, however, not a city for pedestrians; the M1, like most other roads here, has no sidewalk, and the city's hilly terrain means walking around the city is an exercise in going uphill and downhill.

There is no formal public transport in Lilongwe, although, as in many other cities across Africa and beyond, the informal sector has stepped in; over-crowded minibuses and matolas, private vehicles, take people along established routes, while bicycle taxis, locally known as kabazas, ferry people over shorter distances not covered by the minibuses. Neither are the poor man's mode of transport, however: high fuel prices contribute to minibus and matola fares being expensive for the urban poor, while taking a kabaza over a short distance is a luxury few can afford.

So the poor walk. This may be about to change, however, as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), together with the Lilongwe City Council, has developed an urban transportation development plan. A key objective of the plan is to promote "equal accessibility" through extending and improving the road network in peri-urban areas, and introducing public transportation in the form of large buses for trunk routes, minibuses for feeder routes, and proper bus terminals.

Sensibly, the plan starts from the existing transportation infrastructure, focusing on practical improvements to the minibus system. Proposed measures include licensing minibuses, constructing bus depots and stops with information boards, making standardized destination boards on each minibus a requirement, and paving bus routes. If implemented, these measures could go a long way toward improving passengers' safety and comfort, as well as cutting down on congestion created by minibuses waiting for passengers at roadsides. In the medium term, the plan foresees introduction of large buses for key routes, to serve eventually as part of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) scheme.

To keep fares affordable, it is suggested that the government provide direct subsidies to minibus operators or establish a third-sector public bus company with the operators. This is an important element of the plan to ensure that the future public transportation system is inclusive and serves those who currently face mobility challenges due to the high cost of fares.

All in all, the plan puts forward sound ideas for a public transportation system in Lilongwe. However, two key challenges lie ahead. Firstly: funding. With the Cashgate scandal — a dodgy affair involving systematic, large-scale looting of public funds combined with the shooting of a key civil servant (he survived) — still rocking Malawi, few donors are keen to support extensive government projects, and needless to say government coffers are empty. Secondly, even if funding was found, resistance from minibus operators might prove an additional challenge. To date they have resisted efforts to formalize their trade, and instead opted to pay daily fines to traffic police for reckless driving and overcrowded buses. Therefore, if the City Council is going to be successful in taking the plan forward, it will have to ensure that minibus operators, as well passengers, are not only consulted on its further development, but also participate in its making.