Published: 10:14, June 17, 2024
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Powered tricycles on the fast road to global success
By Zhao Ruinan, Shi Baoyin and Qi Xin in Luoyang, Henan

Once the mainstay of rural communities, three-wheelers are now being exported to the world

The assembly line of manufacturer Zhufeng in Luoyang, Henan province. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Editor's Note: In a series of reports titled "Claims to Fame", China Daily looks at how some regions have earned wealth and recognition through specific products to realize the goal of rural vitalization.

On a scorching day in May at 10 am, 72-year-old Han Dengbu and his wife were getting ready to head back home on their three-wheel vehicle.

Residents of Mangling town, Yanshi district in Luoyang, Henan province, they had begun spraying pesticides on some boxwood shrubs at 6 am.

The couple's three-wheeler, or sanbengzi, was purchased almost a decade ago and is an essential part of their lives.

"When we bought it, it cost about 3,000 yuan ($414). We used it to pick up the kids and for farming. Now, we use it to spray pesticides on saplings in the village," Han said.

The couple has even added a canopy to the tricycle for shade and rain protection. "Just twist the handle, and it goes. It's convenient and safe," he said.

READ MORE: New measures help villagers cope with COVID-19

Today, the tricycle is still the couple's primary mode of transportation.

In Mangling, it's common for every household to own at least one tricycle. In just a few minutes, one can see dozens of tricycles whizzing by.

This is not surprising, as Yanshi is known as China's three-wheeler hub. One out of every three tricycles in China is made there, and all the parts required to assemble a tricycle can be gathered within 30 minutes.

The sanbengzi got its name from the action of the driver standing on the pedals of the tricycle to ride on bumpy roads, appearing as if they were jumping.

Viral sensation

The humble vehicle is now growing in popularity overseas. A Chinese video blogger in the United States called Bobo shipped an electric tricycle from China for her father-in-law.

The tricycle became a viral hit, with locals snapping photos and marveling at it. Some even offered to buy it.

But it's not just the US. The tricycles are popular in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and other regions.

The iconic "reverse, please be careful …" warning sound has echoed on foreign streets, and content featuring the tricycles has taken short-video platforms by storm.

Even Hua Chunying, vice-minister of Foreign Ministry, and Xie Feng, China's ambassador to the US, have promoted them on social media.

The tricycles' popularity has quickly boosted upstream industries. This year, industrial regions like Wuxi and Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, Linyi in Shandong province, and Luoyang in Henan have all had their economies boosted by the vehicle.

In late April, the 11th China Three-wheeled Motorcycle Industry Development Summit in Yanshi saw contracts worth 500 million yuan ($68 million) signed, a record amount, according to local government data.

"With the push from China's new energy market, foreign traders are eager to collaborate with Chinese manufacturers. Trade inquiries have increased significantly this year," said Yang Yanchang, deputy general manager of the international trade department of Luoyang Zhufeng Motor Tricycle Co. "This never happened before."

Yang credits the increasing popularity of tricycles to their cost-effectiveness. In international markets, the price of a three-wheeler ranges from $800 to $4,000.

"These affordable, high-quality, and eco-friendly vehicles are well-suited for farm work and goods transportation overseas," he said.

Entrepreneur introduces their products to dealers during the China Three-wheeled Motorcycle Industry Development Summit in Yanshi, Luoyang, in April 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Exports boosted

Zhufeng, a leading manufacturer in Yanshi, was one of the first to begin exporting tricycles. They now export over 20,000 tricycles annually, with an export value exceeding $30 million, reaching more than 50 countries and regions.

Yang still remembers their first foreign deal.

In 2011, upon hearing about the thriving two-wheeler export business in coastal areas like Guangzhou in Guangdong province, the company took its tricycles to the Canton Fair to try and enter the overseas market.

At the fair, there were only one or two three-wheeler manufacturers, but being an exclusive supplier helped them secure foreign buyers, Yang said.

The first order was shipped to Angola in Africa. It took two days to load the container because workers didn't know how to pack it.

Zhufeng then began organizing regular trips for foreign trade staff to coastal provinces like Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong to broaden their horizons and ideas.

Li Pengfei, director of the management center at Zhufeng, said that the first stop for many African customers in China is Guangzhou. In terms of foreign trade, Yanshi is at a disadvantage being in the central plains.

"To attract more buyers to the inland factory, we subsidize travel and accommodation," he said.

The primary export destinations for Yanshi tricycles are developing countries where tricycles play a crucial role in the transportation of crops and passengers, and the operation of stalls. Li compares their use to "China 20 years ago".

Luoyang's first tricycle, arguably also China's first, was made 32 years ago. Zhang Guangdu, who then worked in Yanshi, headed the manufacturing of the innovative three-wheelers.

"During the wave of layoffs in the 1990s, my father noticed people making money by pulling pedal tricycles. This inspired him to buy a two-wheel motorcycle and modify it," said Zhang Jianwei, Zhang's son and now owner of Dahe Motorcycle.

Zhang senior cut off the rear wheel and installed a cargo box with two wheels, creating a motorized tricycle. "My father's innovation inspired many, leading to the establishment of numerous factories," Zhang Jianwei said.

Guo Qiuxiang, a standing committee member of the Yanshi District Party Committee, described the early market as a "blue ocean".

People thrived through hard work with three-wheelers, marking the start of the industry's growth in Yanshi, she said.

Within a 500-kilometer radius of Yanshi lies a mainly agricultural area covering seven provinces and with a population of 460 million. This mostly flat or gentle hill terrain generated large markets for the tricycles.

"When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, Yanshi's three-wheeler industry saw no direct change," Guo said. "The domestic market was vast enough that we weren't ready to expand overseas."

The peak for Yanshi's tricycles was in 2014 and 2015, with annual domestic sales reaching 1.1 million units.

However, in recent years tricycle demand has dropped due to market saturation and policies urging equipment upgrades. In 2023, domestic sales in Yanshi fell to 400,000, about a third of what it was a decade ago.

A buyer tries an electric tricycle at the Canton Fair in April in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

Rapid growth

This shift prompted local enterprises to look abroad.

Last year, the district's total three-wheeler production and sales reached 400,000 units, with over 20 million parts sold, generating revenue of approximately 4.5 billion yuan.

In 2012, Yanshi's motorcycle and parts industry was recognized as a national foreign trade transformation and upgrading base, leading to rapid growth.

The base now houses over 380 motorcycle and parts manufacturing enterprises, employing over 20,000 people, according to Luoyang Municipal Bureau of Commerce data.

In the first quarter of this year, Luoyang's motorcycle exports exceeded 230 million yuan, up 48.4 percent year-on-year.

The government has encouraged enterprises to venture abroad and engage in more exchanges with foreign dealers. In recent years, local governments have organized companies to participate in international fairs like the Canton Fair.

This year's focus is "going global", targeting new overseas markets, especially countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

"We are planning to organize local businesses for a trade fair in Uzbekistan in September. Two companies have already set up production lines there, and Central Asian nations have great market potential," Guo said.

Niu Gang, vice-mayor of Luoyang, said, "Since the Belt and Road Initiative was proposed in 2013, bilateral cooperation and infrastructure connectivity have brought tremendous opportunities for Luoyang manufacturing, including the three-wheeler industry."

Niu said that Luoyang's manufacturing products are more accessible to global markets, thanks to the China-Europe freight trains and rail-sea trains in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, and Qingdao, Shandong province.

Last year, 178 China-Europe freight trains carried 25,000 containers of disassembled tricycles.

Yang from Zhufeng said that the export of tricycles differs from that of domestic sales.

"Domestic shipments are whole vehicles, but for exports, the cost of shipping whole units is too high, so we ship parts and assemble those three-wheelers after arrival."

Tricycle parts are usually shipped through Shandong's Qingdao port, reaching worldwide destinations in two to three months.

Container shipping gives Luoyang-made tricycles a delivery time advantage, which is recognized by foreign dealers.

Om Garg, an Indian automotive engineer, has been importing and exporting two- and three-wheelers with Chinese companies for 22 years. "One main advantage of Chinese tricycles is the quick production time. In India, production time could be double," he said.

In 2019, he began partnering with Luoyang Jiasi Trade Co, a startup tricycle exporter in Yanshi.

"We sell two-wheelers and three-wheelers from China to customers in Africa and South America," the engineer said. "We've imported 2,000 vehicles from Jiasi Trade Co annually and plan to increase the amount to 5,000 this year."

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted three-wheeler exports over the past three years, but since the second half of 2023, overseas demand has surged, said Yun Fubo, owner of Luoyang Jiasi Trade Co.

According to market research firm DIResaerch, the global electric tricycle market was worth 61.86 billion yuan last year and is expected to reach 149.89 billion yuan by 2030.The Asia-Pacific region is the largest market, with about 90 percent of the share in 2023, followed by Europe with around 5 percent.

Electric evolution

As environmental concerns rise, electric three-wheelers, offering energy-efficient and low-carbon transportation, have gradually gained in global popularity.

Luoyang North Enterprises Group, a leading state-owned motorcycle manufacturer in Yanshi, saw foreign trade orders for its two three-wheeler brands exceed 10,000 units in May, up 59 percent year-on-year and a record for the company.

Among these are electric passenger three-wheelers set for export to African countries. Unlike regular three-wheelers, these fully enclosed passenger vehicles are equipped with small fans and hand grips, and are akin to "taxis" in Africa, said Li Bin, the company's deputy marketing director.

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"These customized electric three-wheelers are cost-effective and serve as off-grid new energy vehicles in Africa. After the power is exhausted, owners can replace the batteries at swap stations. They provide convenient transportation, and the locals welcome them," Li said.

Like many Yanshi companies, the group plans to establish overseas warehouses, processing plants, and direct-sale stores in the next three years.

Li believes the tricycles' international success is due to China's growing influence and the product's suitability for many developing regions.

He added that the increasing popularity of electric three-wheelers aligns with the global trend toward low-carbon development.

"Developing new products tailored to specific needs, optimizing existing ones, improving sales policies and services while deeply understanding target markets is essential for Chinese three-wheeler manufacturers to expand overseas successfully," he said.

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