‘Saving’ the Matatu Industry

In the next few months, the government through the new parastatal Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority, NAMATA, will be implementing a BRT system on the Kenyan roads. This exercise will directly impact four counties namely: Nairobi City, Kiambu, Kajiado, Machakos and Murang’a.

For years, the matatu industry has descended into chaos, making it the ultimate mark of a third world nation. The main concerns have been unreliability in terms of availability, insecurity with people getting attacked by drivers and touts every other day, unregulated fares and the utter disregard for promptness where matatus stop every three seconds to pick up passengers. Anyone who has lived in Nairobi can tell you about the mad driving skills of matatu drivers that have you whispering silent prayers all the way to your destination.

So first, how did we get here? As I recently learned from a TEDx talk by Shivachi Muleji of Taxify, it wasn’t always the case until the 1990s when the industry was privatized and the buses were no longer solely owned by the government. Over the years, various Ministers of transport have tried to bring some sanity into the industry to no avail.

However, with this new rapid transport system, the matatu industry is about to feel the shock. Currently, NAMATA is in the process of implementing an express transport bus system similar to the one used in Bogota, Colombia and a step ahead of what is being used in Tanzania, ‘The Mwenda Kasi”. This system will simply involve having high capacity buses on an express road while other vehicles beat it out with traffic on the other side of the road. This is bound to be the much-needed solution for many Kenyans who spend hours in traffic every morning and evening.

download (1)

On this implementation, regular everyday matatus will have minimal chances of survival. So what happens now?

The Tech Revolution in the Matatu Industry

As compared to other African markets, Kenyans love their convenience and are happy to spend more for it. This explains why the on-demand taxi industry in Kenyan cities is blowing up as compared to cities like Dar-es-Salaam. With that, the only survival for the matatu industry is a complete tech-anchored overhaul. However, please note that I am personally extremely opposed to small 14-seater matatus as they are an environmental nuisance. Buses with larger capacities, however, reduce the carbon footprint which is the ultimate goal!

Imagine being able to know who your driver is, where your bus is, where your common pick-up point is, having direct routes that don’t have you going into the city center, being able to do mobile money payments even in advance and even being able to predict what time you will be getting to your stop. All these are possibilities, with the right execution, and go-to-market strategy.

The big question, however, becomes, will this on-demand matatu work? Yes, any system that is able to address the worst challenges associated with public transport while still maintaining what is good about the system such as fair pricing, easy accessibility and multiple but relevant stops, will effectively save the matatu industry! Best of all, with there being a similar problem across most African nations, this is a solution that is implementable across the board.

Now that would be real competition for the on-demand taxi services!


6 thoughts on “‘Saving’ the Matatu Industry

  1. I totally agree with the introduction of express high capacity buses . this is the solution we have all being waiting for. I recall the golden age of stage coach/ Kenya bus, there was sanity in the public transport service sector.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Question, yes this is such a revolutionary idea which can benefit the economy much…

    ..but there is always the argument which this matatu industry usually brings up of loss of jobs for the hundreds of youth currently ’employed’ in the sector, how do we address that also?


    1. Hello Cheche,
      As for digitising the industry, this does not take away from jobs at all as all the buses will still need drivers among other professions. The idea is to make matatus less chaotic and more reliable.


  3. Wow! I like your take on this and I enjoyed the writing too. Some thoughts that came to mind while reading are:
    1. The pros of this system far outweigh the cons, and they definitely far outweigh the pros of the current transport system. A more efficient transport system would save the country or counties a fortune in terms of fuel and time (which is money :-)). We will have a reduced, even if marginal, carbon footprint, faster emergency response (many of us have probably had the experience of a wailing siren in traffic. While it may be easy to dismiss it as a driver misusing it to get out of traffic, consider the times where a life is truly on the line) and most certainly, reduced tyranny on the roads. And this only considers the more direct outcomes.
    2. While there are certainly some who would lose employment as a result, including the self-appointed ‘keepers of the matatu stages’ who charge to shout and grab at market the matatus to potential customers, the longer term effects could mean that other avenues of employment are more viable due to decreased cost of transportation. (As a side note, the matatu industry has indeed offered a means of employment for many people, but it does not offer secure, sustainable or reliable solution to the unemployment situation in the nation. While there are those who do well for themselves from the industry, many only get a paltry income which they may then find necessary to supplement with less than reputable means.)
    3. As with most revolutionary solutions, the implementation is usually where the catch is. I am curious to know whether you have considered what some of the foreseeable obstacles are. I’d like to read a bit more on that.
    4.”So first, how did we get here? As I recently learned from a TEDx talk by Shivachi Muleji of Taxify, it wasn’t always the case until the 1990s when the industry was privatized and the buses were no longer solely owned by the government.” This made me wonder about the various institutions that have deteriorated in quality with their privatization, like the education sector, waste management and one could even say the water and sewerage sector considering how many estates in Nairobi rely on privately owned wells and septic tanks. While privatization may not be the cause of their deterioration, there is certainly a correlation there that should be further explored. In case you know of any research that has been done on the effects of privatization, economic or otherwise, please do share.
    I hope this long comment does not throw you off. 🙂 Again, I truly liked your take on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The long comment was just perfect! I loved your take and interpretation of what I wrote!
      1. I have seen sane public transport systems in other countries such as Rwanda which means that this is indeed a possibility. And above all, it is time!
      2. Agreed! Disruption will happen, that is a fact. As econmies evolve, jobs too have to evolve, that is the sad truth. disruption will be the death of the matatu stage cartels who have held the industry hostega for years. However, this shall not go down without a fight!
      3. This is a very interesting question. I will actually respond as a post on its own, talking about the cycle of a disruptive idea.
      4. Privatisation has to be monitored and controlled. That is where we went wrong! Corruption is the reason we are in today’s conundrum. Feel free to email me, I would love to share my thoughts on the same.
      Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s