Liberia is celebrating 10 years since end of civil war
Many former soldiers finding work driving motorcycle taxis
There are an estimated 500,000 drivers across the country
A dried-out swimming pool, 300 empty rooms and destroyed elevators. The Ducor Palace Hotel, once the most exclusive hotel in Liberia, is now just a shadow of its former splendor. But the floors still have marble and the view over the capital Monrovia is worth climbing the 15 flights of stairs.
There are many bullet riddled and bombed out buildings like the Ducor Hotel in Liberia. They are grim reminders of the brutal 14-year civil war that devastated the West African country and killed an estimated 250,000 people.
The past decade of peace has stabilized the political situation as well as generated government revenues from the mining sector.
But there is one small business in particular that has prospered into a big industry: motorcycle taxis.
The end of the civil war in 2003 created an increased demand for affordable transport. Former combatants, many of whom had been child soldiers, were quick to react to the demand. They started offering uncomplicated transport on motorcycles.
“Every young man needed a job and these are the only means of employment in this country now,” says Monrovian motorcycle driver Harris Culey.
Liberia’s Ministry of Transport estimates that there were around 500,000 drivers in the country, as of 2012. They earn between $6 -20 per day, in a country where the minimum wage is $6 a day.
Today, there are three registered motorcycle taxi driver unions and the national secretary of the Liberian Motorcycle Transport Union, Robert M. Sammie, says his union is helping to formalize a flourishing trade.
“We decided to provide leadership and guardians (so) it just wouldn’t be something done illegally and people could not respect you or regard you so that’s why we incorporated to make us a formal business,” says Sammie.
He says the union now has about 40,000 members since it started in 2004. “We are making headway. There are some challenges in a way, but actually the membership is increasing,” he explains.
From motorcycle driver to college student
The motorcycle taxis are known as “pen-pens,” a name that comes from the sound of their constant horn blowing. But driving them can be a hazardous job. There are few traffic lights in the country and many drivers service the rural areas of Liberia, where roads are poor. The increasing demand on motorcycle taxis has also led to an increase in accidents and Culey was involved in an accident in 2010.
And despite being in a profitable business, Culey says he feels marginalized: “Some people in this country think that motorcyclists are not important people,” he explains.
Sammie says his union is doing research sponsored by the German Society for International cooperation, GIZ, to establish comprehensive data on the situation of the commercial motorcycle transport.
“How many of (the drivers) are in school? How many of them have had accidents? When we get that done what we are thinking about is to see how we transition some of them from riding motorcycles to owning cars, going to colleges and so forth,” says Sammie.
“We don’t have to have a generation of motorcycle riders because if that happens it’s not really going to be good in the near future.”