Although tricycle, popularly called Keke Marwa or Keke NAPEP, has become a huge commercial success in Nigeria, serving the dual purpose of creating employment opportunities for millions of Nigerians and boosting transportation, it is also a metaphor for an embattled national economy
Ola Matthew, a former banker with Sterling Bank, is now a budding entrepreneur, having carved a niche for himself in tricycle business, popularly called Keke Marwa or Keke NAPEP. Matthew, who heeded his friends’ advice and ventured into the business in 2006, four years before his disengagement from the bank following a rightsizing exercise, is now the envy of his colleagues most of who are still brooding over the loss of their jobs and struggling with millions of people over a few white-collar jobs. The computer science graduate of the University of Ilorin who started out with one Keke Marwa has since added two more tricycles into his fleet, raking in an average of N6,000 a day from the one he operates directly or N12,000 a week from each of the other two tricycles. By his own admission, the father of three from Osun State smiles to the bank with an average of N150,000 per month from the three tricycles in his fleet.
Apart from the proceeds from his three tricycles, Ifeoluwa Ventures, a firm Matthew floated and runs from his base in Forsythe Street, Lafiaji, Lagos, rakes in another N10,000 per month as service charge for managing keke business on behalf of numerous clients. The firm, which is into catering services, ice block making and computer services, later veered into tricycle business where it provides such services as hiring honest and efficient drivers on behalf of clients as well as locating lucrative routes to guarantee quick and maximum turnover for the owner. It also buys and handles the registration formalities for the tricycle such as union and local government registration, among other services. The company also assists the keke owner strike a better bargain with riders, as well as help locate a competent mechanic for routine servicing of the tricycle.
As rewarding as Matthew’s foray into the tricycle business is, it is no where near what Moses Buhari, chairman, Three-Wheeler Beneficiaries/Operators Association, Lagos chapter, is reaping from tricycle business since September 1998 when he plunged into it. He is one of the few Nigerians that participated in the scheme when the now popular Keke Marwa was first introduced in 1998 by Buba Marwa, the last military governor of Lagos State. Today, Buhari has 12 tricycles in his fleet. Each of the tricycles swells his account with between N3,000 and N5,000 per day, depending on the route. At N3,000, it means he realises an average of N21,000 per week or N84,000 per month. The 12 tricycles in his fleet rake in about N1 million every month. On a good day when the tricycles bring in a daily return of N5,000 each, he takes home N1.8 million per month.
Buhari’s hugely rewarding venture into the keke business is the fruit of his wise investment decision, which saw him abandon his car towing business to embrace Keke Marwa when the former could no longer put food on his table. Hear him: “I joined the business when I realised the towing business I was doing could not sustain my family; I started it because I needed a viable and profitable alternative.” Even the limited stock of the tricycles at that time could not deter him from going into the business. He recalled how he had to approach a friend for assistance. “When Marwa was selling his tricycle, I couldn’t buy due to the limited stock; I had to beg a friend who bought two to allow me use (ride) one as a source of income,” he told the magazine, adding that with 12 tricycles now in his fleet, he could not wish for a better business venture.
The experience of Sunday Joseph, vice chairman, Oworo Bariga, Lagos branch of Three-Wheeler Beneficiaries/Operators Association, further attests to the huge potential of the tricycle business. He abandoned his former business of riding commercial motorcycle popularly called Okada and threw his hat into the keke ring. That was in 1998 when he dropped out of Lagos State University, LASU, when he could no longer afford his tuition fee. Today, as Joseph admitted, things have started looking up for him, as his fleet has grown from one to eight. “When I started the keke business, things started turning around for me. I started with a tricycle but now by the grace of God, I have eight in my fleet. With proceeds from the business I have been able to finish the building of my house within six months, buy a car and I can now confidently provide the basic needs for my family and relatives,” he told the magazine with a tone of triumph. He said that he first plied the Cele route along the Oshodi-Mile 2 Expressway where he was making about N2,000 daily and later moved to Falomo, Ikoyi area of Lagos, which is a more lucrative route. There, he realises about N5,000 per day, but on Sundays when patronage is usually higher, daily return could be as high as N7,000.
Operators of Keke Marwa and Keke NAPEP are not the only ones earning their livelihood from the boom in tricycle business. Some tricycle assembly plants and distributors/dealers are also reaping bountifully from the trade. For instance, in one month alone, Wandel International (Nig.) Limited, a motorcycle and tricycle assembly company and a member of Simba Group, churns out an average of 600 to 700 tricycles. According to Deji Olaniyan, sales/marketing manager, Wandel International, the parent company assembles the yellow-painted TVS King variety of tricycles manufactured in India. He pointed out that the TVS King range of tricycles from India symbolises quality and boasts of exclusive features such as a four-stroke engine, 200cc capacity, and double headlamps, which he said are of greater advantage, as well as a dashboard and an electric starter.
Although he did not disclose the company’s turnover, Olaniyan told the magazine that the company commands a sizeable chunk of the tricycle market, with clientele largely made up of microfinance banks, dealers and corporate buyers, among others. He disclosed that the company is at present trying to phase out individual customers or end users and focus on the corporate segment of the market. “We are trying to discourage this group of customers (end users) and very soon we would completely phase them out,” he said. This is an indication that the company is not only making profits, but also strategising on how to consolidate itself in the market. Olaniyan explained that the company usually sends assembler(s) along with the purchases when governments and corporations make bulk orders. The company is, however, not in monopoly in this subsector of transportation.
Bajaj Auto Limited, a manufacturer of tricycles, is also positioning itself in the Nigerian tricycle market. Apparently encouraged by the size of the Nigerian market, the company, which has its production plant in India and an assembly plant in Nigeria, is already considering establishing a production plant in the country, according to Krishna Grihapathy, its vice president. In 2011 alone, the company trained over 3,000 mechanics in the area of maintenance of its products with plans to train the same number this year. Its products are said to be in use in over 80 local government areas in Nigeria even as the company plans to increase the number to 250 this year.
Apart from the TVS King from Simba and Bajaj models, there are also BAJIO petrol, and Laruti types. However, the Bajaj model is a much sought-after because it is cheaper to maintain and the parts are available. It is also said to be more fuel-efficient. Each unit of tricycles, according to Olaniyan, costs between N360,000 and N380,000 due to fluctuations in foreign exchange, Forex. “We hardly have a stable price range, and this is basically due to the very unstable market forces, the fluctuation in foreign exchange. And this is very disheartening. One of our reasons for setting up is to make sure that the grassroots user, who is the end user, acquires the tricycle at an affordable price. Unfortunately, the very unreasonable market forces make this completely impossible, as we have to pay through the nose to buy Forex. This is sad because the end user bears the brunt,” he regretted. Matthew confirmed that the cost of the tricycle indeed is determined by the whims and caprices of the Forex market, as the last one he bought cost N350,000.
The cost notwithstanding, Keke Marwa or Keke NAPEP has come to stay as the cheapest and preferred form of transportation, taking over from motorcycles, more popularly called Okada or Achaba in most parts of the North. Keke Marwa, which carries four passengers (three at the back and one in front, at times in addition to the rider), was introduced around 1998. Because of its instant success, the federal government replicated the model.
Subsequently, at the enthronement of democracy in 1999, the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo, in 2003 introduced a bigger model of the tricycle under the aegis of National Poverty Eradication Programme, NAPEP, hence the sobriquet, Keke NAPEP. It was aimed at empowering the unemployed in the country to earn a living and contribute to national development. Unlike Keke Marwa, Keke NAPEP (painted in green colour) is slightly bigger, carrying five passengers (four at the back and one in front). There is a yet bigger one with an extra coach, capable of conveying seven passengers at the same time.
However, there is also Trident tri-car, a four-door three-wheel vehicle fitted with four-stroke engine, but it is not as commercially successful in Nigeria as Keke Marwa or Keke NAPEP. The Trident tri-car models are equipped with CD/AM/FM/MP3 player, good interior fittings, spare tyre, toolbox, and air conditioner. All, but the truck version, come with four doors. Despite explanations by Importex Investment Limited, the company that introduced the Trident tri-cars into the country that the products were designed differently to offer social, ecological and economical advantages such as better safety, higher performance, comfort and near zero emissions, it failed to match the popular and ubiquitous Keke Marwa and Keke NAPEP.
In Lagos alone, there are over 12,000 keke operators who are members of the over 25 branches of the Three-Wheeler Beneficiaries/Operators Association, Lagos State chapter. Hakeem Abdullahi, state secretary of the association, disclosed that about 50 per cent of the operators are graduates. A good number of these people took to the business as a last resort. Ajagun Joseph, 28, a 1999 graduate of accountancy, Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Ogun State, is one of them. The father of one from Edo State said he was left with no other choice than to operate Keke Marwa. According to him, other available job opportunities at the time he was job-hunting between 2000 and 2001 were mostly marketing jobs and the remuneration were on commission basis rather than fixed salaries. He admitted that barely a year in the business it has proved a sustainable source of livelihood for him and his family.
Indeed, not a few Nigerians, including graduates who find it hard to secure white-collar jobs, are now earning their living by operating Keke Marwa or Keke NAPEP. Apart from creating employment opportunities for millions of otherwise unemployed individuals in the country, it has since become a major form of transportation, both in rural and urban centres across the country. In the streets of Lagos and other major cities across the country, tricycles of different types are now common and are the preferred mode of transportation. Many workers now prefer the use of tricycle to get to their places of work early, especially those who live in Lagos and other major cities. It is the preferred means of commuting within estates across the country, especially high-class areas where movement is restricted for Okada riders who are non-resident. In some estates, tricycles are painted with a particular colour to differentiate them from others plying around the area. A case in point is Omole Phase I, Lagos, where tricycles plying the estate are painted white, meaning that other tricycles are barred from entering the area.
Its preference is anchored on the fact that unlike the Okada, tricycle is safer and provides some form of protective cover from the elements. This much was attested to by Chibuike Vincent, a trader at Awolowo Road, Ikeja, Lagos, who said he prefers tricycle to Okada because it is safer and more convenient, especially when it rains. The same feeling is shared by Emmanuel Ibekwe, a resident of Mafoluku, Oshodi, Lagos, who said in the event of an accident, a passenger is more likely to get away with less injury, if any, than he would have if he were on an Okada. Olaniyan puts the accident rate of tricycle at two per cent. The fact that many Nigerians regard tricycle as being safer and more convenient than Okada has also been a shot in the arm for operators of tricycle, some of who provide “customised” services, somewhat like charter services.
For instance, Clifford Mbato, a businessman, who later veered into the tricycle business in 2009, reveals that he has a special arrangement with some families, which involves conveying their children to school and back to their homes. One of the families, he said, pays him N5,000 per month for his services. In order to take advantage of the opportunities the business offered, Mbato disclosed that he took a loan to purchase two tricycles.
According to Matthew, the hire purchase arrangement is preferable and more rewarding. “Ninety per cent of those who prefer the other arrangement (the daily return) always regret it because these people (riders) would overuse the tricycle because they know that you can fire them at any time, but if they know that at the end of six or seven months the tricycle would belong to them, the way and manner they use it and maintain it is different.” He explained that under the hire purchase arrangement, one could buy a tricycle for N300,000 and give it to a driver at N650,000 or N600,000.
To ease the acquisition process, some state governments, microfinance banks, and corporate organisations also import tricycles in bulk and sell them to people on an extremely low or no-interest basis payable over a period of time. This is the basis of the poverty eradication programme which government unveiled for the purpose of empowering the poor, jobless and underemployed.
From local to state governments, and even the federal government, millions of Nigerians have been “empowered” with tricycles. Politicians at all levels now thump their chests after distributing tricycles to members of their constituencies. Local government chairmen have suddenly become tricycle distributors, making available what they describe as dividend of democracy to their people. Today, tricycle has become the attraction for youths in over 20 states across the country, irrespective of age, gender or social status. States such as Ogun, Oyo, Akwa Ibom, Osun, Ondo, Kogi, Kaduna, Plateau, Delta, Imo and the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja, among others, have since become centres for the thriving keke business.
However, while Keke Marwa or Keke NAPEP has served the dual purpose of creating employment opportunities for hitherto unemployed Nigerians and boosted transportation, it is also a paradox, as not a few people see the use of tricycles in the country as a symbol of national decline. The worry is that at a time other countries are busy developing railways, airways and waterways to improve public transportation, governments at all levels in Nigeria seem to have promoted tricycle as a viable alternative to more dignified means of transportation. This is an admission of failure of the leadership in the country.
But what obtains now is that the authorities unabashedly endorse the use of tricycles to serve the dual purposes of bridging the gap in public transportation and ensure private economic development. Already, many Nigerian youths, who are supposed to learn a trade or go to school, now prefer to get engaged in the keke business. Millions of graduates who are unable to find jobs have also turned to keke as a viable alternative thus reducing their potential to contribute meaningfully to national development along their courses of study.
While conceding that tricycle business has indeed lifted many families in Nigeria out of poverty, Joseph argues that the influx of the three-wheeler into the country is indicative of economic decline. “Yes, it is an indication of economic recession. That is the only thing that could make a graduate to join tricycle operators to make ends meet. When you graduate without work after three or four years and a job like tricycle offers you a minimum of N20,000 weekly, an amount some office workers don’t earn weekly, you would grab it with both hands,” he said. His concern is not without basis. In the 1980s, there was no such thing as a tricycle, and even if there were, it would have been unimaginable to see a graduate use one as a means of transportation, let alone drive it. Taxis driven by levelheaded people were available to convey passengers anywhere. Even in the 1990s, the types of motorcycles that were common included Vespa, Suzuki and so on, and they were mostly used by postal or security agencies or people who used them to enhance movement in the course of business.
However, in Lagos and, indeed, other major cities across the country, the tricycles are restricted from major highways. In Lagos, for instance, tricycles are not allowed to ply the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and Third Mainland Bridge, among others. The policy is aimed at ensuring safety for passengers and rider. There was a scenario in Lagos when an articulated vehicle sped past Keke NAPEP whose rider flouted the no-ride-on-highway law. The tricycle was swept off by the sheer force of the wind, leaving the passengers injured. Apart from their lightweight that makes them incapable of plying major highways, tricycle operators, like operators of other mode of transport in Nigeria, are also faced with other challenges, particularly alleged extortion by the police, touts, and officials of various regulatory authorities in the transport sector, such as the Lagos State Transport Management Authority, LASTMA.
The alleged overbearing attitude of members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, NURTW, appears to be the greatest headache of operators of tricycle. “Our main challenge now is with the NURTW. The union is trying to compel us to join and the unfortunate thing is that the state government supports them too,” Abdullahi lamented. He recalled that when Marwa introduced tricycles to Lagos, he handed them over to the NURTW, which initially refused, insisting that it had a lot on its hand. The union’s refusal initiated the birth of the Three-Wheeler Beneficiaries/Operators Association, which has been coordinating the affairs of tricycle operators since 1998.
Abdullahi explained that the association signed a memorandum of understanding, MoU, with the NURTW leadership at the time to allow them run their affairs. However, subsequent leadership of the NURTW, realising that the keke business has become a money-spinner, allegedly suddenly abandoned the MoU and sought to control the affairs of operators by imposing leaders on them. “Our members are not willing to join the NURTW because we are better organised. We are still in court over the matter, but we are hopeful that the judgment would be in our favour,” he said.
As the business continues to make millionaires of hitherto unemployed Nigerians, it is also a constant reminder of the country’s collective failure to adequately address its poor transportation infrastructure.
Additional reports by YINKA OMAGE, ABIOLA ODUTOLA, AYODEJI ADEYEMI, TEMITOPE ADEOGUN, PEACE ARIKPO, and AJIBOLA AJISAFE