Buying a motorbike in Malawi…

… is not as easy as it sounds. Almost all the bikes are 125cc off-road bikes, with Yamaha being the most popular, followed by Honda, Suzuki and a few lesser known makes. There are some 175cc and 200cc bikes, but they’re rare. So the choice is not very large, but in fact the small-engine off-road bikes are the best choice anyway, as one is bound to be riding in the dirt at some time or other. The challenge is not to fall into the dirt! A new Yamaha DT 125cc, the bike we learnt on with VSO, costs a cool K850,000 at the only dealership in Malawi. That’s about £4000 – and more than twice the price of the same bike in South Africa. The import duties in Malawi apparently almost double the price of vehicles, though I was still shocked that a new very basic bike could cost this much. VSO have suggested that I apply for a grant for up to £1000 to buy the bike for work transport, in which case it is theirs once I leave. This is fantastic, but it limits my budget to something much more modest.

Second-hand bikes are really hard to come by. I phoned all the dealerships in Blantyre, with no luck. I asked around at the hospital, and a few people said they "know somebody" and would get back to me. I asked people in the minibus, with no luck (though did chat to a Malawian PhD student studying vowel shifts in Chichewa). I went to second hand goods stores, and they too said they’d find one for me, but I didn’t hear back from them. I went to the motorbike repair shops in Zomba, and they took my name and number, but still my phone didn’t ring. In the end I was accosting people on the street in town, pointing to their bikes and asking where they got it and where I could find one. They were surprisingly happy to answer my questions, and some took my number. Most of them said their bike belongs to a private company or NGO, and they have no idea where to find a second-hand one. One "entrepreneur" who I quizzed while he was filling up with petrol said I could have his beaten-up bike for K350,000. I laughed and told him I didn’t have so much money to spend, whereupon he asked me, in typical Malawian fashion, how much I would be willing to give him. I again said I wasn’t interested, whereupon he offered me the bike for K250,000 – a quick and substantial discount! No I really wasn’t interested in buying it, and I asked him how much he paid for it. Without a trace of shame he told me that he had paid K180,000. Evidently he felt that bikes increase in value like good wines! The bald assumption that mzungus can be charged exorbitant prices and will stupidly pay them is starting to irritate me, especially because it is sometimes true! But it is a bit insulting at times.

Thus my search for a motorbike had almost come to a halt, and I started taking a Malawian attitude to it – it’ll happen when it happens, don’t rush it. My contacts were out there, and I was waiting for my phone to ring. Then one morning last week, in the middle of a ward round, I get a phone call from the hospital switchboard, telling me "There is a man here with your motorbike." These sorts of random calls are not unusual at work, but this one naturally interested me and I wandered from the ward to admin block, apologising to the bemused Clinical Officer students. Outside admin block there indeed sat a smiling Malawian, on a rather battered red Honda 125cc off-road bike. I had never seen him before, and had no idea who he was, or how he found me. Somewhat bewildered and curious, I questioned him, but he just smiled and showed me the bike, as his English was poor. How bizarre, I thought, but the bike was pretty much what I was looking for, so I didn’t argue. It emerged after some talk and pointing that the bike had been bought at an auction for K180,000, and he was asking K270,000. He was a motorbike mechanic, and had fixed it up and tuned it – hence the significant mark-up. He had also added a few "special" modifications. Since he did not have the key, he’d hot-wired it so that anybody could kick start it, and the electrics (including lights and hooter) didn’t work as a result. I quizzed him on this, and he said a key was easy to get hold of. So I sent him off to get the electrics working, and I went home to read up about buying a second-hand motorbike on the ‘net. (Check this out, for example.) I studied hard that night, and when he returned (electrics and ignition working) two days later I tried to examine the bike like an expert! Yeah right! I had little idea what I was doing, but the nearest reputable mechanic who I knew of was in Blantyre. The tyres had good tread still, and as I looked at the hairline superficial cracks in the back tyre (a sign that the tyre hasn’t been replaced as often as it should), he proudly told me that it was "original tyres". Clearly the idea that some parts are better replaced over time was trumped by the idea that original parts are always best. Hospital staff came out while I inspected the bike. They all said it was a good bike ("Honda is a strong bike.") and that I’d be silly to let it go. The bike drove well indeed, and we settled on a price of K240,000, to be paid the following Wednesday afternoon at the hospital. It would take me a few days to draw so much money in cash. (If you had also looked for so long for a bike in Malawi, you might also have bought this bike…) Bizarrely, again, the following Wednesday when we were having lunch at Tasty Bites, the guy drives up – in the middle of town! – and wants to swap bike for cash outside the restaurant. How did he find me here? I sent him off to get the bike’s papers, which I thought would be a nice touch when selling it. We met that afternoon at the hospital, with the actual owner present, who was a physiotherapist in Blantyre and spoke good English. All was explained. My stalker was merely the mechanic, apparently. The owner kindly offered to register the bike in my name in Blantyre, and return the next day with the papers. And so he did, true to his word. And the bike goes well.

P1030681Ah, the bike and the open road…

[ Update 22/12/08: This last weekend, having driven the bike to and from work for a few days, I ventured on a longer trip down to Blantyre to stay over at Rob’s. My plan was to take the bike to Allen, the reputable mechanic, to have a look at it and tune it up a bit, as I noticed it splutters a bit at times and can be tricky to kick-start. I left a bit late on Friday afternoon, and as a consequence arrived in the dark and the rain. I won’t describe the trip in any more detail, as this blog might be read by my parents, who have invested much time and care in my upbringing. Next time I’ll leave earlier. So on Saturday we took the bike to Allen, who looked it over and said it had a very good engine. Yay! But some stuff (minor, I promise) needed doing, and I left it there to collect on Wednesday morning to drive back up to Zomba. Then… perhaps bike up to Cape Maclear for Christmas? We’ll see. ]

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13 Comments »

  1. Verena said

    Gareth,
    how cool is that! A MOTORBIKE! I can see you with your sexy leather jacket, cool sun glasses, gold bracelets on your hairy chest, and your long, wavy hair blowing in the hot Malawi air… sorry, I’m getting dragged away here! 🙂

    Basi had a motorbike and it’s a great way to explore the country side. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! But be careful and don’t pick up any random girls from the street!

  2. Dad said

    I was young once too!

  3. […] 9 October   Family Ties 13 October     Zany Psychiatrist 16 December   Buying a motorbike in Malawi […]

  4. Vassilis said

    Man, I had some of my best memories with an XL-250R and a friend in the White Mountains range (this is the name but also there was snow) in Chania.

    You should keep the contact of the repair-middle man because he manage to fix the lights so fast. this means he knows what he is doing.

    If the engine is not licking oil, you will have it for ever. The drum brakes is something you should learn to check yourself and try to find spare brake-pads before they are gone completly.

    This is a very good bike but not meant for two persons on long journeys. If you need to do that go very slow, otherwise it will break. And wear a helmet!

    Cheers Vas

    PS: Verena’s comment was the best

  5. Vassilis said

    No it was XL 185S, the toughest model ever.

  6. Adam said

    Hi,

    Really interesting reading your blog. I’m planning on coming up to Malawi in Jan 2010, from South Africa. I’m intending/hoping to buy a Suzuki DR 650 and ride up. But it sounds like I might struggle for parts/services and so forth once I’m up there? I’ll be based in Lilongwe, any ideas/suggestions for such a venture? I’ll in Lilongwe for 4 months and plan to ride the bike home again. Your blog made me think this might be somewhat ambitious… HELP?

    Thanks,
    Adam

  7. Gareth said

    Hi Adam,

    Riding up to Malawi on a larger bike sounds exciting, and certainly getting around Malawi over short distances has been fantastic on a bike. I also had fleeting ideas of riding my bike back to Cape Town – but only fleeting. I’ve not ridden any other bike, but I can say that my Honda 125XL:(and very likely also the Yamaha DT125) is very uncomfortable over long distances. Riding up to Lilongwe, even spreading it over two days with only two hours ride per day, was unpleasant and left my back and shoulders fairly painful and stiff – will write a short post about it presently. So in retrospect I would definitely not consider riding my bike for more than a few hundred km’s at most. That said, a bigger bike is apprently more comfortable to ride, and goes faster. I have no idea what a Suzuki 650 feels like. But I would think it wise to at least allow for breaks in any long journey here. Regarding spares and repairs – there are mechanics who work with larger bikes as well as the 125s and 175s. I used an enthusiast in Blantyre who was good and rode bigger bikes himself. But in smaller towns you may struggle unless the problem is common to most bikes. Spares may take a bit longer to find for a less common bike, but not impossible in the larger centres. I did pass a stream of touring bikers with large bikes on the road only two days ago, so you would not be the first.
    Hope that helps,
    Gareth

  8. Reblogged this on Herman is out of the office.

  9. […] the blog of a returned VSO volunteer called Gareth in Malawi. One particular post caught my eye: Buying a motorbike in Malawi… His whole blog is a very good read but to quickly summarise this post for you, here’s an […]

    • patrick cavanagh said

      Interesting read. My wife & I met in Salima whilst she was a VSO volunteer at Salima Secondary School & was travelling through Africa on an XT600 in 1995-6. We are considering options about working overseas (I’m a Nurse Practitioner) & I’d want a bike if we did. The Malawi government calculator for importing a bike is confusing. Do you have any idea how much it would have cost to buy a bike in UK & import, when you were out there?

      To comment on the DR650 query- great bike, good to haul lots of weight all through Africa as with the bike I took, but smaller is generally better if not carrying that much. Even if I was riding distance I’d probably buy a Yamaha XT225 or 250 Serow as they’re simple, many common parts with other Yamahas, have a 6th gear for road work.They weigh 108 kilos dry, a consideration if you are exhausted & it’s hot.

  10. stephen soko said

    Plz help me I want motorbike to buy.

  11. Brian said

    Was reading this and I remembered I have a yamaha xs650 I dont use. Maybe you’re interested in buying it. I was going to modify it into a bobby but haven’t had the time. 0997267004

  12. Winnie said

    I need a motorbike to buy most preferably skygo the short one am in Zambia

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