The cost of cheap cars: Gaborone’s transport challenge

Gaborone is a city without a public transport system. If you don’t own a car, transport is an inconvenience at best and a nightmare at worst. If you’re one of the growing number of commuters who live in surrounding villages due to the restrictive property prices within the city it’s a long haul to get to work. You might need to wake up as early as 4 a.m. to catch a combi (mini-bus), which will take you to the only bus terminal in the city, from where you will take another combi to get to work.

These combis do not operate on specific time schedules. They govern themselves and won’t go anywhere until they’ve packed in enough customers to make each trip financially viable. This means waiting in a half-full combi while the driver shouts at passers-by to climb on board through his window for up to half an hour is a common experience. The process is repeated after work, in reverse. Cross your fingers you’ll get home before dark. Of course you could use cabs to get around, but that will set you back between P40 ($4) and P100 ($10) per trip.

More cars on the roads

The lack of public transport and unreliable combi service makes private cars an attractive option for commuters. New private cars have always been out of reach for most Gaborone residents but in recent years there has been a growing trend of residents buying second-hand cars imported from Japan, the United States and the European Union. These cheap vehicles are derogatorily referred to as ‘Fong Kongs’ and can sell for as little as $1, 000 in the country of origin, as Professor Roman Grynberg, formerly of the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA), highlights in a Mail and Guardian article published earlier this year.

In the last 10 years, car imports to Botswana have spiked. The customs value of cars imported into Botswana has leaped from P1.4 billion (US$140 million) in 2005 to P4.1 billion (US$410 million) in 2014, according to figures from Statistics Botswana. Most of these are used cars. Statistics from the Department of Road, Transport & Safety, indicate that the number of used cars imported into Botswana has consistently exceeded the number of new cars imported into the country since 2006.

With the availability of cheap cars, Gaborone’s roads are becoming increasingly congested. As Grynberg points out, “small cities such as Gaborone now have four-lane roads to accommodate the flood of second-hand cars, which is taking up the scarce funding that should be used for rural roads and infrastructure.”

Deputy Town Clerk overseeing Technical Services at the Gaborone City Council, Mr. States Kabasia told UrbanAfrica.Net that “there are more vehicles in Gaborone than was anticipated and this has had a huge impact on the expenditure of roads.”

Breaking down the numbers

In an effort to find lasting solutions to the problem of oversubscribed roads, the Ministry of Transport and Communications has engaged the international urban transport consultancy firm CPCS.

CPCS Senior Consultant Amos Ditima was recently quoted in a Mmegi Online article as saying that the lack of integration between urban planning, transport planning and land use planning is the source of the myriad problems in Gaborone’s transport system.

CPCS is conducting a study and has found that of the 400, 000 vehicles nationwide, over half of them are in Gaborone. The ‘Implementation of an Improved Metropolitan Public Transport System for the Greater Gaborone Area’ study also discovered that there are 200, 000 daily trips between Gaborone and surrounding towns and villages and that 97 percent of these are within Gaborone, according to the Mmegi article.

Sixty percent of the vehicles used on these daily trips are cars while vans constitute 26 percent, buses represent 8 percent and combis (mini-buses which transport passengers across various routes within the city for the equivalent of 35 US Cents per trip) make up only roughly 6 percent.

While accurate data is important, nothing can be done to improve roads and public transport without an adequate level of funding.

“The government is trying its best to allocate funding to road projects but we have to understand that there are many competing needs,” says the City Council’s Kabasia. “The pressure on government in the past ten years has forced it to reduce spending on various projects, including roads, in favour of more pressing matters such as combating life-threatening diseases. So currently we can say the funding is not enough but they’re trying their best. The only thing left for us, as government officials, is to use what we have been given carefully.”

There has however been some outside assistance for the city’s transport problem. The World Bank recently gave the Gaborone City Council (GCC) US$1 billion (P9.75 billion), through the Ministry of Infrastructure, Science and Technology, for the development of an integrated transport system in Gaborone.

Towards a new transport system

The city’s existing transportation system is indeed a contentious issue. It is made up primarily of combi and taxi operators, which function mostly as individuals. The long distance buses, which run from city to city and arrive at Gaborone’s one bus terminal, however, are represented by an association.

Lack of regulation, poor organisation, and an over-supply of permits in the market due to a substandard permitting system are some of the flaws the CPCS study highlights in the city’s existing transportation system. Operators in the existing structure need to be brought on board with a new system, CPCS recommends, with restructured institutions, liberalised transport markets, and commercialised transport bodies, supported by the necessary training and infrastructure, in order to improve order and efficiency.

“Our current situation in which the city has no bus lanes and only one terminal, the bus rank near the city, is impractical,” says Kabasia.

Development of a new public transport system is currently at the design stage, he explains, and, with the support of the World Bank Funding, the city is concentrating on expanding city roads, introducing bus lanes, and improving the intersections to ease traffic. It is also considering the introduction of more terminals to reduce the amount of buses moving around within Gaborone.

“The new system will only be considered to be a success if it delivers the required outcomes which are: faster journey times; a significant modal shift from cars to public transport; reduced congestion; reduced waiting time; and easier through movements,” Ditima was quoted as saying.

In future, cars – used and new – might be a rare sight on the city’s roads. But that seems a distant vision. Kabasia says a public transportation system needs to be developed to a high enough level of efficiency that citizens can be banned from using private cars within the city.

“If you’re in the city why should you have a private car?” he says. “We have to stop these private vehicles from coming into the city. According to my mind, they shouldn’t be allowed, because in a major city like London there’s simply no space for you to move around with your car. If we can build a very good public transportation system then that should become the only thing allowed to go into the city.”


Kibo Ngowi is a journalist based in Gaborone, Botswana who has contributed articles to several nationally-distributed newspapers and the national airline’s in-flight magazine as a freelance writer. He is currently the Deputy Editor of Boidus Focus Newspaper, a monthly publication dedicated to covering issues around Botswana’s building and construction industry. You can reach him via

Photo: Donarreiskoffer.

Chart: Brendon Bosworth/Piktochart.


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2 Responses to “The cost of cheap cars: Gaborone’s transport challenge”

  1. phelisia

    The lack of integration between urban planning, transport planning and land use planning is the source of the myriad problems in most African transport system.
    The influx of cheaply imported cars compounded by rural urban migration is a developing challange to institutions mandated to planning.
    Proper designs should be encouraged as most African cities are becoming disasters.


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