Why hail a taxi with four wheels when two will do just fine?

Need a taxi in Togo? Climb aboard a Zemidjan "Take Me Quickly" motorbike and get to your destination faster than you would do in a car.

These small motorbikes which take a single passenger on the pillion are all the rage in this corner of West Africa. They also provide a regular source of income to thousands of people who would otherwise be jobless.

They cruise the city streets, weaving in and out of traffic jams and bump along paths and tracks to remote villages, which were previously only accessible on foot.

The name Zemidjan means "Take Me Quickly" in the local Fon language. Most are small motorbikes with engines of between 50 and 125 cc. Individuals often invest their modest savings in these wobbly vehicles and then hire them out to a motorcycle taxi driver for a fixed daily fee.

The Zemidjans made their debut on the streets of Lome in 1992, when an eight-month general strike paralysed the city of one million people.

As in many West African countries, municipal bus transport in Togo is virtually non-existent. So when ordinary taxi drivers joined the walkout, the residents of Togo's seaside capital were left stranded.

And that's where the motorbike-taxis came in.

What was once a spontaneous stop-gap solution to a public transport crisis has blossomed into a flourishing and well-established business.

A study by the Togolese Society for African Development Studies (SOTED) estimated that there were about 50,000 such taxis on the country's streets in 2001.

It found about 80 percent of the urban population usually flagged down a Zemidjan to get around.

"I used to be an ordinary taxi driver but Zemidjans made my life difficult so I switched sides," Agbeko, one convert to two-wheeled transport in Lome, told IRIN.

From apprentices to businessmen, from students to civil servants, the Togolese are happy to climb on behind the driver and wend their way through the cars, trucks, animals, and people crowding the city streets.

In the countryside, meanwhile, Zemidjans have ended the isolation of those living in outlying villages.

"To go and see my cousins who live about 10 km away from us, I had to walk for at least half an hour," Mole, a pensioner, who lives 50 km outside Lome explained. "Now I can get there in record time, literally just a few minutes, and that means I can go more often," he added.

Back in Lome, a short ride across town by Zemidjan costs 100 CFA (20 US cents), while a trip of more than 3.5 km will set you back 380 CFA, although naturally everything is up for negotiation

In theory, the fares charged by motorbike taxis are exactly the same as for cars. However, Lome residents say the Zemidjans often work out cheaper because many taxis will only drive on tarmac roads or well-travelled routes. That means a journey must be undertaken in stages, using two or three different vehicles and paying a fresh fare each time.

"Zemidjans are so much cheaper than taking an ordinary taxi because I can go from door-to-door whereas if I take a car-taxi, I have to make several journeys," Nadine, a young woman, who works in an office near Lome's main market, told IRIN.

Cheaper for commuters and a boost to the economy

The SOTED study showed that two-wheeler taxis are not only proving cheaper and more convenient to commuters. They are also providing thousands of new jobs and benefiting the wider economy.

"Motorbike-taxis are really boosting the Togolese economy. In 2000, they contributed 42 billion CFA francs (US$ 80 million)," the organisation said.

The group said the knock-on economic effects ranged from petrol consumption -- estimated at 8.3 billion CFA (US$ 15.7 million) a year -- to extra business for tyre traders and repair men.

Drivers hang around at a Zemidjan taxi rank waiting for fares

Even the government picks up 8,000 CFA (US$15) a year from each Zemidjan driver in licence fees.

SOTED found that each year between 1995 and 2001, some 6,500 people found jobs as motorbike-taxi drivers. They included many skilled tradesmen and university graduates unable to find work elsewhere.

"I had been unemployed for six years and so I took this job in order to feed my family," explained 34-year-old Alfred, who has a degree in management.

The average daily income for a Zemidjan taxi driver is just over 5,000 CFA (US$ 10) a day, although usually 2,000 CFA (US$2) of that must be turned over to the owner of the motorbike on weekdays.

Still, in a country where a family of five can scrape by on 10,000 CFA (US$ 20) a week, the regular wage is very welcome.

"When I was a mechanic there were lean patches, but now with the motorbike-taxi I can ensure that I have enough to feed my family every day," one man told IRIN.

Another proof of the Zemidjan boom are the four acronym-hungry unions that have sprung up to represent the legions of drivers in Lome and Togo's other main towns -- UNSYNCTAT, ACP-MOTO, SYLICTAMO and SYNACO-MOTO.

The SOTED study showed that many Togolese have invested their modest savings in the motorcycle taxi boom, using the cash earned from hiring out the bikes to drivers to supplement their modest salaries as traders, civil servants and military officers.

For those who are more cautious and worry about crashes and reckless drivers, there is the "work and pay" system, which allows them to sell new motorbikes to taxi drivers lacking their own capital through a hire-purchase system

Instead of paying the owner of the motorcycle a share of the daily takings, the driver pays him a fixed sum every month over an agreed timeframe. At the end of this period, the initial purchaser of the Zemidjan has doubled his money and the driver gets full ownership of the bike.

"A man gave me this bike and in a year and a half I will pay him back 1.3 million CFA (US$2,400)," Sessous Firmin, told IRIN.

The burgeoning Zemidjan industry remains largely unregulated, despite rules drafted by the government in 1996.

Motorbike taxis are supposed to have yellow numberplates to distinguish them from private vehicles and the drivers are supposed to wear a blue shirt and helmet. In the early days, the police systematically stopped vehicles and enforced these rules, but now things are more lax.

For example SOTED estimates that 88 percent of the Zemidjan drivers are carrying passengers without the requisite driving licence.

"The process of getting a licence is quite expensive and I don't need a piece of paper to drive my bike. Even children know how to ride them," the mechanic-turned-Zemidjan driver explained.

Some see a link between this lack of certification and a high accident rate.

"Statistics show that three out of five road accidents are directly or indirectly caused by motorbike-taxis," Komlagan Segbor, a professor at Lome University who specialises in transport issues, told IRIN.