New models fail to match the Toyota Hiace minibus versatility
Since it hit Uganda’s roads in the late 1980s, the Toyota Hiace’s various minibus variants have been the most ubiquitous mode of passenger public transport in Kampala city, and indeed the whole of Uganda. That reign could be nearing its end if major importers of the vehicle and leading taxi fleet operators are to be believed.
Samuel Babuloosa, an official of the Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers association (UTODA), while staring into an uncertain future, nostalgically recalls the early days of Uganda falling in love with the Toyota Hiace minibus.
The first taxi minibuses to hit the road in Uganda were baptised Kigati, he says. They were Nissan Caravans models of the late 1980s. Kigati means bread and referred to the loaf-like shape of those models. Soon, however, the first Toyota Hiace hit the road sparking intense rivalry with the Nissan. The first Toyota Hiaces were the high roofs, which were nicknamed Kamunye or the kites, because of their fast speeds compared to the Kigati.
Samuel recalls that the first person to import a Toyota Hiace into Uganda was possibly the late Christopher Kaggwa, a businessman who became popularly known as mitwalo nkagga or Shs 60,000-man because that is what the minibus cost him. He was reportedly later followed by Saleh Semakula and an unidentified police officer who was by then the inspector of vehicles. Today, the main importer is Muko Investment Ltd in Zana along the highway to Entebbe and UTODA although they face stiff competition in the market from Indian and Pakistani importers.
In a candid interview with The Independent, Mohammed Konde managing diredtor of Muko Investments Ltd, which is the leading importers of the minibuses, says the Toyota Hiace is on its last miles in Uganda.
Konde said since the old model Hiaces are no longer manufactured in Japan, they have been getting them from plants in Malaysia which assemble them under the Toyota brand. He said, however, the new models are quite expensive and have been rejected by the taxi operators. He said they prefer to buy reconditioned vehicles because they attract less tax than brand new ones.
Konde says the Japanese makers of the minibuses change models every two to five years and old models are phased oout. Unfortunately, the most popular Toyota Hiace minibuses on Ugandan roads are the Third Generation models designed between 1982 and 89. There are a few from the Fourth Generation designs of 1989 to 2004 which are locally called kigege because of their protruding fishlike front snout and wide headlamps that extend to the side of the cab.
Since these designs were phased out in Japan, Konde says, even assembly plants in places like Malaysia that keep on assembling these cars under Toyota brand have stopped assembling minibuses built on the Toyota hi-roof model.
Babuloosa says, so far, he is not worried about the supply of the old-style vehicles since car dealers shopped them off the European market, online, and from the manufacturer’s and stocked them in warehouses here in Uganda.
“So every time you need a new Toyota Hiace the supply is there,” he says.
He says most of the Toyota Hiace minibuses on the road are converted from vans, which they call “box body”, that are refabricated by artisans in garages in Kampala’s Katwe and Kisenyi suburbs. The refabricating involves cutting out the metal and inserting windows so that the vans are suitable for passenger use.
“The difference can be seen in their head lights where some are in the middle while the new models has its head lights spread out to the sides of the cars body,” he said.
Another UTODA official who asked not to be named said they could have resorted to the new models Toyota minibuses but they are small and cannot be refurbished to carry 14 passengers. He said they are used mainly as family cars or business vans.
“They are so limited and not good for business,” he said, “if we adapted them with these rampaging fuel prices, we will be out of business in a week.”
The early Hiace won its fight with Nissan because of its engine reliability, fuel economy, and great cruising ability on the highway. In terms of body shape, the three-person cabin convenience, and the sliding side-door the competitors were neck-and-neck.
The newer models still offer that and more. But they are also quite costly compared to the old ones. Although all are not bought brand new, a reconditioned 1990s model Toyota Hiace minibus from Japan goes for about Shs 12 million “and you start plucking money”, as one of the operators put it. Meanwhile, the new models go for around Shs 80 million.
The cost of the new models goes even higher because they come with already inserted seats which have to be removed to insert the usual fourteen seats in passenger taxis.
As the end looms, UTODA operators like Babuloosa, who had grown addicted to the Hiace are grappling with ways to sidestep a crisis as the old taxi types are inevitably phased out.
Babuloosa says the managers of the transport sector have been nudging them to drop the old model taxi and adapt the bigger Toyota Coaster that seat either 32 or 25 passengers but he is playing a wait and see game.
“If indeed the Coasters come in,” he said, “where will our old taxis go? would they co-exist with the coasters just like we are doing with Pioneer Easy buses.”