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Zupco leading local bus assembly revival

by Staff reporter
14 Aug 2022 at 07:22hrs | Views
From being a shining beacon of mass public transport during the early years of independence, Zupco had in recent years mutated into a classic example of a failed State-owned entity.

In 1993, it was by far the largest public transport operator, with a fleet of around 1 200 buses operating on 426 routes.

It also offered direct and reliable out-of-country bus services to destinations such as Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa.

However, a combination of mismanagement, an ageing fleet, liberalisation of the urban transport sector and the consequent emergence of private-owned commuter omnibus services ran Zupco aground.

Tragically, by 2017, the parastatal did not have so much as a single bus plying urban routes, while only a handful of coaches were servicing long-distance rural routes.

Saving grace

But unlike some businesses, the outbreak of Covid-19 two years ago was its saving grace.

The pandemic forced the Government to rethink its policies on mass public transport.

A disorganised and decentralised urban commuter transport system that was largely in the hands of private players had the potential of increasing the spread of the virus through flagrant disregard of health protocols and guidelines.

For example, in addition to being inefficient and having a cat-and-mouse relationship with law enforcement, private transporters could not provide for social distancing and general hygiene on their vehicles.

For most private operators, profit was their major imperative, as opposed to efficiency and public health safety.

In response, authorities indefinitely suspended all private-owned commuter services.

New regulations were later introduced encouraging private operators to register under the Zupco franchise to be allowed back on the roads.

This development was to prove a major turning point for the ailing transporter.

As of January, Zupco had 1 212 private-owned buses and commuter omnibuses operating under its franchise.

To complement the embryonic renaissance, Government began retooling the company.

About 400 new buses were procured from China and Belarus and added to Zupco's fleet.

Overall, about 2 000 high-volume coaches are needed to support an efficient service.

Innovation

Zupco has, however, come up with an innovative approach to replenish its own fleet to complement imports.

It has now begun re-assembling old buses that have been rotting away at its depots countrywide.

The buses are currently being re-assembled at depots in Harare and Bulawayo.

The company expects to refurbish more than 60 buses by year-end.

Zupco chief executive officer Mr Evaristo Madangwa said the current phase will cater for buses that will ply routes with rough terrain.

"The project started in March this year and we have re-assembled five buses, with one already plying the Kanyemba route," said Mr Madangwa.

"The shells belong to buses that broke down years ago.

"We then sourced engine spare parts locally and some from China.

"We are re-assembling engines that are suitable for our rural terrains."

The coaches imported from China and Belarus, he said, were unsuitable for rural terrain.

There are plans to deploy some of the buses to destinations such as Kanyemba and Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe, which are known for their punishing gravel terrain.

"It is our hope that by year-end we will have assembled over 60 buses that are meant for our rural terrain."

According to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development, of the 98 000 km of road network in the country, 89 percent (78 200km) is unsurfaced gravel roads.

Sealed road network constitute only 18 percent (17 846km), mainly in urban areas and major highways.

As a result, most transporters are unwilling to deploy their coaches to rural destinations, leading to perennial transport challenges.

Mr Madangwa said deployment of Zupco buses to these areas will help relieve transport challenges. The company also plans to decentralise its depots to rural centres.

New depots have already been set up in Uzumba, while two more are set to be commissioned in Kanyemba and Tsholotsho.

The depots will be set up in every district and work closely with local Vocational Training Centres (VTC).

Synergies

Zupco admits it has limited capacity to resuscitate its old fleet on its own and has, therefore, contracted State-owned truck and bus assembler Deven Engineering to refurbish some of its bus shells.

Deven's core competence is trucks and bus-body assembly done on rolling chassis or from knocked-down kits.

The company builds trailers, tankers and specialised vehicle bodies such as compactors, dumpers, tippers, refuse trucks and repairs.

Currently, Deven is refurbishing 17 bus shells from the Zupco.

Deven acting managing director Mr Tranos Ngwebu said: "We are in the process of refurbishing the buses mainly from Zupco and for the current batch, we have received about 17 shells which we have refurbished.

"This is being done under National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1) under the bus and related value chains.

"This project complements Government efforts as it creates jobs and also opens up engineering companies, which were on the verge of closing."

Private sector

Last year, a consortium of public transport operators, Amalgamated Bus Industries (ABI), secured a US$35 million loan to revive two local bus assembly companies.

In May, ABI received 21 kits to assemble buses locally.

This project is envisaged to create about 80 direct jobs.

ABI project manager Mr Patrick Munyaradzi said their aim was to resuscitate the bus assembly plants.

The consortium comprises Deven Engineering, AVM Africa, Quest Motor Corporation in Mutare and Willowvale Motor Industries.

"These players in the cluster have capacity to assemble at least 300 buses per annum at one shift of semi-knocked-down kits," said Mr Munyaradzi.

"Our strategy is to assemble complete knock-down kits, which will resuscitate the local value chain of component manufacturers, which will then feed into assembly plants."

He said there was need for Government to scrap duty on semi-knock-down kits.

"The semi-knocked-down kits are subjected to a 10 percent duty. We continue to lobby that the duty be scrapped to zero," he said.

"The importation of any complete built units must be charged duty.

"It becomes a misnomer of the objectives of NDS1, which include capacity utilisation, job creation and technology transfer, if we bring in buses duty-free when we have this capacity and capabilities."



Source - The Sunday Mail