July 29 2014 - Public Transport in Ghana

There are few experiences more quintessentially African than riding a shared minibus taxi at the height of rush hour. Whether it is the Mutatu in Kenya, the Kombi in South Africa or the Tro Tro in Ghana, these crammed, noisy, hot and yet ubiquitous vehicles are responsible for getting more people to and from their daily business than any other form of transportation on the continent.

In Ghana the popularity of the Tro Tro is enduring. They are cheap, and fast (once they get going), sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, and always aiming to maximize capacity while minimizing downtime. The experience of riding in a Tro Tro seems chaotic from the outside and intimidating to the uninitiated, but underneath all the shouting and the honking lies an incredible business operation. In urban centers, the Tro Tro is manned by a driver and a first mate. The driver is responsible for driving quickly and safely, while the first mate handles the money and drums up customers by shouting the final destination at bus stops and to all passers-by who seem like they could be in need of a lift. The system is remarkably efficient, with driver and first mate in constant communication (often to the hilarity of the other passengers). At peak times and at high volume stops there is a scramble for seats that captures the essence of mankind’s survival of the fittest instincts.

Once on board, the ride is often cramped: the driver rides with two passengers in the front, while the first mate commands the first of four rows of benches, each of which can seat four people. All in, at full capacity there are 17 people plus their belongings crowded into the floorspace of a typical US minivan. There are no seatbelts and padding on the seats is often worn through. Any floor insulation that protected customers from the noise and heat of the engine has long disappeared, so passengers must choose their Tro Tro seats wisely.  The preferable seats are beside the windows – though it’s harder to get in and out of the vehicle from the window seats, the breeze blowing through often feels refreshing. The worst seats are the middle seats in the first two rows.  They are positioned over the gearbox and centre axle; sitting in those seats can leave you feeling that you are slowly roasting from the heat of the engine and gearbox.

Thankfully, the Tro Tros are fast, particularly in the urban areas. It is remarkable that there are not more accidents, as the drivers dash in and out of traffic across lanes in a constant symphony of horn beeping and indicator signaling. Somehow it all just works. Assuming a safe passage to your destination, the benefits of riding the Tro Tro outweigh any temporary discomfort. In Accra the cost of a 10km ride is around $0.40. In more remote locations a two – three hour trip is about $3. On these longer journeys, the ride can actually be quite comfortable, and some members of the Tomato Jos team have even been known to be lulled asleep by the gentle rocking of the Tro Tro over bumps in the road.

We are inspired each time we meet with farmers to learn their challenges and how we can help them access markets and grow tomatoes profitability. Reaching farmers in remote villages requires flexibility on our behalf, so the Tro Tro is just one resource in our logistic plan. In order to carry out regional assessments and interview farmers, we have taken planes, taxis, a river ferry, 4x4 pick-ups, luxury bus liners and motorbikes. We have not yet traveled by donkey, horse, camel or river canoe, but we would welcome the opportunity should it arise!