To the outsider the Nairobi traffic and traffic flow systems can seem the perfect definition of disorder, yet there is order. The endless hustles, the bustle, the darting, all bear a deep seated order that is organic and unique to the city. The new arrival is always overwhelmed by the colorful nature of the machines and the people involved in the industry, in the beginning they can barely cope. By the time the city has assimilated them they discover there is order beneath and there and then their love hate dichotomy with the city transport system begins.

In 2014, a collaboration called Digital Matatus resulted in a digital map of the Nairobi public transport system. The researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Columbia University, and the University of Nairobi along with the design firm Groupshot released a map of the entire Matatu[1] system. This has resulted in a very successful application of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the Matatu industry that has resulted in a deeper understating of the industry. It has also resulted in helpful apps and mapping data for the city. The data and the digital map is open source and will be a basic tool in the arsenal of any public planner who wishes to make sense of the city.

This data presented through apps which include Ma3route, Flashcast sonar, digitalmatatu, matatumap and others have changed how commuters and planners think about the transit system in the city. The map is even being used by UN HABITAT to help guide the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) they are developing for Nairobi. The Matatu industry before this application of ICT seemed unintelligible and untamed, yet the order was there, it just needed to the discovered.

The prelude

Often, the public transport system in Kenya is referred to as informal. This is to stress the absence of foreign standards and systems. The absence or lack of standards would be seen as casual. In essence the public transport system in Kenya looks casual yet there is nothing casual about it. The tag is given to it by those who wish to discredit it as a legitimate industry with its unique order and characteristics. Researchers estimated that there were 40,000 Matatus in Kenya in 2003, employing 300,000 people, up from 18,000 in 1990. Projecting this, they say there could be up to 100,000 Matatus in 2016, employing close to a million people. In Nairobi, it remains the dominant mode of transport.  Boda boda[2] motorcycles have also joined the Matatus fray in the transport sector employing another a million people. With these estimates the public transport sector that many term informal employs as many people directly as the government of Kenya and the formal private sector combined.

At independence the Kenyan public transport system was dominated by a giant transport firm locally known as Overseas Trading Company (OTC). This was a British company that started bus transport in Nairobi in 1930s introducing a fleet of 13 buses on 12 routes in Nairobi before expanding to other towns. The British company was enjoying a monopoly on Kenya’s formal transportation industry before the locals ‘informalised’ the industry.

Not to be outdone by the Britons who had just colonized Kenya. The government had several misguided forays into public transport. Nyayo Bus Service (NBS) is one such misguided and doomed thrust. Amid fanfare and spectacle as is normal during the launch of such projects NBS came to life in 1986 as a bus service, run by the national Youth Service (NYS). The service quickly grew so that in 1988 it had a fleet of 89 buses, and made KES 9million as profit according to media reports. The Director Mr. Geoffrey Griffin was beside himself with achievement, this was a decent amount back then and the aspiration of the government to run the British company out of the transport industry seemed reachable. The corporation employed hundreds of Kenyans from the NYS. Young University graduates brimming with enthusiasm joined the bus service. It was not an informal service; it was the real formal deal. The bus service basked in popularity and profits in the early days. However, the rigor of keeping a government corporation afloat in a Kleptocracy is yet to be mastered in Kenya.  In 1995, a local daily wrote that of 367 buses countrywide belonging to NBS by then, only 55 were operational with the others either collapsed or vandalized. Entire buses just vanished! Kenatco is another tragic government misadventure into the Matatu business. All this time the government aficionados did not map out the routes or provide drop off and pick up points along those routes.

All attempts by the government and the business establishment to bring in ‘order’ in the public transport industry and to reign in the madness have been nothing but veiled rent seeking attempts by a predatory elite. The basic instinct of the Kenyan elite as always is, was to mimic the west preferably Britain then loot. After independence they imported fleets of London style buses and placed them in Nairobi streets giving little care to the nonexistent road network in the country or even to impose some semblance of order in the public transport system. All they wanted to do was to run the buses as they ‘saw’ in London. Managing the buses, understanding the environment or satisfying the commuters was never their priority, getting the buses in the country and ‘launching’ them was an end in itself. Public corporations like NBS have largely been spoons through which the government of the day eats through.

Organic development

Following a decade of bureaucratic bungling in public transport after independence; in the 1970s, Matatus became the dominant means of transport; they ran off the streets, Nyayo Bus and Stagecoach. To avoid the schemes and licenses of the bureaucrats, they had been operating clandestinely in Nairobi and elsewhere in the country until 1973 when the first President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta issued a decree officially recognizing Matatus as a legal mode of public transport. The bureaucrats and their stiff necks had hitherto did all they could to lock them out of business. The president put an end to all that official nonsense, all the enterprising business men needed was to obey traffic rules and buy insurance for their cars. To save costs further third party insurance was born; this is where only the vehicle is insured, the people carried can fend for themselves.  Men with pickup trucks, station wagons and Lorries folded their shirts, collected some benches, fixed these in the floors of their vehicles and started offering transport services to fellow Kenyans at floor bottom rates. This is a perfect illustration that the people left to their own devices can come up with ingenious solutions that work for them. The Matatu industry was born and it has thrived because of the government’s neglect or lack of the capacity to run a useful public transport system.

Within the chaos

The idea to map Nairobi and gain some understanding into the operations of Matatus began in 2012 with Sarah Williams and Jacqueline Klopp, two researchers working on land use projects in Nairobi. They roped in the other organizations to take on the mammoth task. They put together a team at the University of Nairobi for this task.  Armed with smartphones, ten university students spent four months riding the Matatus. Their task was to note the name and location of each stop in a purpose-built app, which also used Global Positioning System (GPS) to track the routes. The students recorded almost 3,000 stops on more than 130 routes. They did geo-location of bus stops and also recorded the designated stop over and passenger collection zones. Other data collected included service frequency and operating schedules. They noted the peculiarities of the Matatus industry; like the fluid nature of routes which change depending on the resistance on the road, police presence, weather patterns and traffic flow. As a result of these and also as a function of time of day, the fares are never fixed. The routes and bus-stops often change depending on traffic flow or patterns. Police checks are arbitrary. The commuters also have changing demands which vary with the time or the prevailing weather conditions.

The data collected needed to be interpreted and packaged into a usable format. The format of choice for this kind of data is a global standard called the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). This is the format which is compatible with open-source software used to make routing apps like Google Maps. The researchers discovered that the Matatu operators and owners in the seemingly discorded interaction with their passengers are Nairobi’s invisible public transit planners. Beneath the chaos was order.

A bastion of resistance

Kenya’s lucrative public transport industry grossed KES 218.1 billion in revenue in 2013. Such figures make businesses and government start scheming on how to have their hands on the pie. After realizing the clarity that came about with the mapping, government mandarins, Tech giants, Banks and mobile money firms hatched a plan to control the cash flow in the Matatu industry. All cash would pass through them using a cashless pay system. The tech firms, banks and telcos were set to rake in at least KES 2.1 billion annually in commissions, assuming a processing fee of one per cent. However they are known to take more and charge extra fees once they wet their beaks. The government through the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) would also tighten its noose on this industry and increase its collections through such a platform.

The first attempt to introduce the electronic payments technologies was hatched in 2013 when Google paired up with Equity Bank to launch the now defunct BebaPay card. Google had partnered with Equity Bank to pilot the use of BebaPay for bus fare in early 2012 and formally unveiled the cash-lite solution in April 2013. They even had the government do their bidding. The government banned the use of cash in public transport. Google soon realized the impossibility of imposing a top down order in the Matatu industry and cut its losses in March 2015. Other similar groups having their site in the Matatu revenues thought the death of BebaPay was a boon for them. The products such as Pepea by Kenya Commercial bank (KCB), Tangaza Pesa PSV card, My 1963 by Safaricom and Co-op Bank’s M-Nauli soon realized their slow death.

It is not that the Matatu industry is not tech savvy; there was just nothing in this cashless malarkey for the industry. The cashless initiative in fact posed a threat to the ‘normal’ running of the industry unlike the mapping project.

 “Michuki Rules” also sought to give an edge to corporatized transport companies such as City Hoppa and double M. This has proven to be a flash in the pan with these companies faltering. Large bus companies like Akamba have always found ways to die slowly illustrating the resistance of the Matatu industry to corporatization. The SACCOs that thrive allow the Matatu owners to run their Matatus as they please, they can deliver their services to their customers in any flavor they want without getting bogged down with corporate pretenses.

The invisible hand

One of the few things Adam Smith would be proud of in Kenya is the Matatu industry. There, his invisible hand works quite well and persistently despite the government and corporate constant meddling.  For developmental economists, development in Africa is split in the informal and formal. The informal is often defined in opposition to the formal most insisting that the informal is inferior to the formal. This view makes everything branded informal to look ‘slum-ish’. Just because an industry does not look or mimic its European version does not make it informal. The formal needs trust in governance, whereas the informal needs trust amongst people. For most parts, for the ICT industry to thrive there has to be trust for the product or initiative from the people. M-Pesa could not have made it anywhere if the people distrusted it. ICT helps in understanding the informal.

It is encouraging to note that UN- HABITAT and the Nairobi County government are embracing the data and maps resulting from the Digital Matatu project to understand public transport in Nairobi. The County government of Nairobi has gingerly accepted the maps and hopes to use them as it implements the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan (NIUPLAN). But alas! The central government still carries on with its mega projects oblivious to the order in the Matatu industry and its stoic resistance toward top down change. The projects are mostly formulated for those with private cars and the business class and completely ignore the city’s existing public transit system that continues to develop in an organic way.

The ICT sector like the Matatu industry has only grown because of the limited government involvement in them. The Digital Matatus project, sought to help commuters plot their routes on their smartphones, It has laid bare In Nairobi the emergent transit system with set maps, times, and prices’. It has also become an indispensible tool for the urban planner and the engineer interested in emergent transit systems.


[1] A privately owned public transport bus or mini bus in Kenya

[2] Cyclists providing public transport services using motorcycles and bicycles 

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