A young Malawi inventor has created a vehicle from scratch to cut through the capital's traffic. He's dreaming big and hopes his next, more ambitious model, could serve as an ambulance in remote communities.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the traffic is tight in downtown Lilongwe as the hot sunlight descends on Malawi’s capital city. The traffic turmoil is in stark contrast to inventor Eston Nkhoma’s calm as he turns the ignition key of his prototype car and the engine comes to life.
A gear shift and a touch on the accelerator sets the car in motion. Inventor Nkhoma, 24 – who made the vehicle from scratch using different parts including a motorbike engine – says everything about the car has been adjusted to his specifications.
“I started experimenting with the idea and now here we are. I used a motorcycle engine, bought a gear for reverse, and the tyres are from tricycles. The mirrors and the headlamps are from motorcycles as well. I modified most of these things to work like they do,” he says.
Nkhoma welded metal bars together to make the frame. It has a driver’s seat and a plastic-covered auto body. The design is as unusual as it is unique.
“I deliberately gave the car two ignitions, because some people misbehave and if the first one is damaged, the other one is an alternative,’ he tells the Africa Calling podcast.
“It works like any other vehicle, but there is one difference. A regular vehicle has one gear which can be shifted in different directions but my gears only go left and right, with six gear levels with one for reverse,” he adds, while maneuvering through downtown Lilongwe traffic.
Benefits in rural areas
Nkhoma hopes vehicles like these can be used especially in rural areas to transport goods or even carry harvests back from the fields.
At the moment, he uses it to carry his tool box and travel to places of work, making commuting easier.
Nkhoma believes that people in remote areas could use the vehicle to carry patients to hospital – a real bonus in a country where most people walk long distances to access healthcare.
He is working on another bigger and better vehicle which he hopes could accommodate sick people in dire need of transport.
As a child, Nkhoma's curious nature and unusual interest in fixing appliances at home earned him the monikers ‘dismantler’ and ‘troublemaker’.
Born and raised with his six siblings in Chimoka village, one of the townships of Lilongwe, he describes his childhood as normal, but dropped out of primary school in year four.
“When I was growing up, I used to scramble and fix things. The way I was doing things, people around me noticed that I was not a normal person and they said that I would come up with something in the future,” he says.
“When I was nine years old, I dismantled a generator set and made a motor cycle,” the shy-looking young man adds.
His father, a bicycle repairer, taught his son the trade. But Nkhoma wanted something more challenging and started working with motorcycles. This ultimately prompted him to build his own vehicle.
It can go up to 60km/hr and is also very fuel efficient.
“With 2000 Kwacha (about $ 2.50) worth of petrol, I can travel from my home to town and then back, which is quite a distance," he says. "This battery is for starting the car and lighting the lights. But it also has an alternator which charges the batteries."
The prototype caught the attention of mechanical engineer Alexander Maononga. He believes that with a few technical improvements the car could benefit remote communities in particular.
“The guy who manufactured this car is a genius – but there are two or three things that should be examined, especially the strength of the chassis. Is it strong enough?” he asks, wondering about the safety measures Nkhoma has added.
“The strength of this vehicle is that it can take a person from one place to another and I can see that the parts, like the tyres, seem to be OK. This vehicle can be very helpful in those areas, transporting people in the villages to hospitals,” he adds.
Driving down the streets of the capital, Nkhoma responds to people’s stares and admiration with a simple nod and a grin.
His vehicle always causes a sensation when he drives around the townships. But he believes that the one that's still under construction will not only surprise people, but serve a bigger purpose in helping the community at large.