Arnold, 14, has hardly slept throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Daily, from 4am to 8pm, he provides a taxi service to anyone who needs it: pregnant women; occasional tourists; bankers...all on his Chinese-made motorbike.
Yet Arnold is supposed to be in school.
Instead, he has abandoned any desire to return to classes in Zambia, here in the southern Africa region along a border that straddles the neighbouring republics of Mozambique and Malawi.
And in all three of these countries, thousands of cheap Chinese commuter motorbikes are making it incredibly enticing for a generation of young people to earn money – and give up on their education.
Students quitting school to be motorcycle taxi drivers
This problem existed previously, but, fuelled by the idleness of the Covid-19 pandemic that has shut down schools and sports throughout the southern Africa region, Chinese commuter motorbike companies, enabled by auto-credit banks, are doing brisk business and thus creating thousands of local youth motorbike taxi owners who provide cheap service and fill a gap in countries without public transit.
For just $300 cash, or on credit without a background check, youths as young as 14, with no licences or helmets, are overnight owners of motorbikes.
They then work to ferry thousands daily in villages and towns, and thus earn food, rent or medicine for their extended families.
It is clear why this takes place and, on one level, we cannot overlook the importance of being able to afford such items.
Yet these informal motorbike taxis are creating massive headaches because they are swaying thousands of youths to abandon formal school.
As Arnold reveals: "If I go through 10 more years in school, I'll graduate with a certificate, and join the millions of educated roaming the streets in Zambia. By that time my school-dropout peers would be owning 10 motorcycles and possibly a taxi."
Disturbing as it sounds, this is strikingly true. In my class, I began with 60 pupils in 2019. By January 2021, 34 students, including the academic performers, had left behind their books for good to try the motorcycle taxi business.
This is a predicament facing almost all teachers in the region, whether in primary or high school settings.
“This a dilemma of a noble money-making scheme that's creating a brand new generation of uneducated youth,” says Yasin Lode, a local humanitarian in Zambia. “Covid-19 coupled with Chinese-origin commuter motorbike taxi riches could double this dilemma.”
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (commonly known as Unicef), there are 800,000 school-aged children who are out of formal education in Zambia today.
Furthermore, the international development agency USAID says that in 2020, in nearby Mozambique, where motorcycle taxis are wildly popular, 50 per cent of girls drop out of school by fifth grade. Mozambique has one of the world´s lowest literacy rates with only an estimated 47 per cent of its population possessing basic reading and writing skills.
There's a cost to poor education. Mozambique is just emerging from decades of a ruinous civil war. Right now, a new armed insurgency persists in gas-rich Mozambique.
Its poorly educated youth are easily co-opted into ruthless banditry. Education is a means to tackle this for the long-term future. But the lure of easy money from an easy trade risks this all.
Sadly, though, grim prospects after graduating from formal schooling are among the reasons why motorcycle-taxi street entrepreneurship culls our students from classrooms. In our region; the job market is not transparent.
Employment opportunities are dished out upon favours, patronage or paying of bribes.
Diminishing hydroelectricity generation, expensive access to technology, outdated industrial machinery and the crushing of small-scale industries by cheap imports from China mean enormous numbers of our college graduates loiter in streets, are under-employed or could even turn to selling street fruits for survival.
Our region of southern Africa has a 14 per cent youth joblessness rate – a global record.
How to get children back in school
Winning back our students from instant motorcycle taxi riches is an uphill task. It doesn’t help that the Chinese-made motorcycles are on course to outnumber cars soon. But we can suggest a few helpful solutions.
First, a regime of strict licensing and policing of motorcycle taxi owners to ensure that under-age children are not allowed to abandon classes, or operate motorbikes, is urgently needed.
Secondly, working with loan banks to block under-age youths from accessing motorcycle taxi credit would cut the source of improper funding that´s swaying children away from the classroom.
Sadly, though, bringing back students to class is an uphill struggle unless we roll out a taxpayer-funded free school meals regime, subsidised/free basic education, and working parents-teachers associations (which don´t really exist in our region).
"We can only think of coming back to classrooms if schools feed us for free," five students tempted by motorcycle riches candidly told me. "It makes no sense to abandon motorcycle taxis that feed our families for just books with no job in the end."
Overall, working as a taxi driver brings earnings and wealth to hard-pressed families in our southern Africa region. No doubt.
But make no mistake, with under-age taxi owners who give up school, we are creating a generation of uneducated young people – and the consequences could be far more costly.
Catherine Audrey Simango has 20 years of experience teaching English and history in the southern Africa region.