Changing Faces of the Matatu Industry

Changing Faces of the Matatu Industry

1966 BUSES VS MATATUS

The old timers of Nairobi narrate with nostalgia of a period when there was an organized transport in the capital, a system that had clean buses that kept running on a timetable and could be depended upon even when it rained.

The disarray on Nairobi's roads can be followed as far back as 1966, when the City Council of Nairobi gave United Transport Overseas Services (UTOS) a monopoly to operate a bus service inside the Central Business District. UTOS were the then proprietors of the Kenya Bus Group Ltd and the arrangement included giving the City Council a 25% stake in the company.

The buses had routes assigned by the Transport Licensing Board and worked on set timetables, making them a solid means for transport around the city. Everything worked fine until the ever enterprising Kenyans noted a gap and began exploiting the opportunity. They were buying small vans, mounting seats, hiring one man to drive and another to collect fare and therefore making some cash.

These became favorable to the inhabitant of Nairobi in that the new vans charged a standard fare of 30 cents to any destination inside the city. They carried fewer passengers, which meant they spent less time waiting at bus stops. Like today, the commuters wouldn't mind being squeezed or sitting in awkward positions to make space for that one more passenger.

The vans were nicknamed matatus as the 30 cents would be paid in three ten-cent coins — mang'otore matatu in Gikuyu — and quickly turned into a favored means for transport in the city.

They worked at rush hours and, again like their present day counterparts, were in an unending cat-and-mouse game with the traffic police and city authorities. In any case, they were likewise a thorn in the flesh for the owners and operators of the bigger buses, whose routes were dictated by the TLB and worked on the set timetables.

To have an unregulated competitor can be awful for a business that adheres to the standards, thus the buses operstors sent an appointment to met the then President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. They met him at his home at Ichaweri in Gatundu and he calmly listened to their grievances, with their main petition being that since the matatus were working in the same routes as their buses, they should either to be regulated or banned.

Kenyatta is reported to have asked Dedan Nduati, their chairman, how much money a bus would cost, and the appropriate response was expeditiously given that it was Sh100,000.

"What about a matatu?" the President asked and he was informed that would be Sh25,000.

"Go sell the buses and buy matatus," the President answered.

That’s how it ended and a couple of months after that meeting in 1973, the President exempted all vehicles under three tons from paying TLB licenses. The reasoning was that matatus were making business and jobs, and in a city whose population was growing, that must be something to be thankful for.

All things considered, that marked the end of companies, like, Jogoo Kimakia, owned by Njoroge Nduati, and to a great extent added to the turmoil that has plagued the matatu sector since. Into this mix came the multiplication of stage ‘gangs’, the frequent income by the matatu gave rich pickings.

To get a van changed over into a matatu on a specific route, you needed to deal with the gang that set up the route or the individuals who run it, without which the matatu crew would be subjected to terror and harassment.

2003 MICHUKI LAWS

Another phase in the regulation of the matatu industry came in former of ‘Michuki Rules’ on December 31, 2003, named after John Michuki, the then Transport Minister.

Matatus were required to have speed governors set at 80KPH, introduce safety belts that travelers were required to use, and a noticeable yellow line painted all around the vehicle. Drivers were required to wear light-blue shirts, ties and naval force blue coats and pants, while conductors were to dress in maroon.

Both should have recognizable identifications tokens with their names displayed. Drivers were likewise required to mount photos of themselves within the windscreen in a position that is visible to everyone, including the individual sitting at the back of the matatu.

The owners and operators opposed the idea for some time, on the premise that it would expand their cost of operation, yet their hesitation was broken when President Kibaki said in no uncertain terms that the rules would stay in force.  

For the larger capacity buses, for example, those owned by Stagecoach, this implied they could only earn from sitting passengers. For buses that were intended to carry standing passenger, this meant a steep decline in fortunes.

The Michuki Rules additionally brought about the introduction of buses  with exclusive access to the CBD, posing competition for Kenya Bus Services as City Hoppa and, later, Double M received licences.

As the saying goes, nothing lasts forever, thus when Michuki left the scene, everybody relaxed. Like all other laws Michuki Rules required an enforcer, however the police were not up to the challenge because the vast majority of them were bribe pinchers.

At an event in 2011 to launch a crusade named the Kitu Kidogo Out Project, organized by the Matatu Welfare Association, it was revealed for that the matatu industry loses at least Sh1.8 billion annually to bribes and route gangs.

"This loot," the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission announced, "is shared out among cops, legal authorities under whom matters fall, and gangs that take on the appearance of industry players."

2009 AWAY WITH 14 SEATER VANS

The next phase of reference in the endeavored control of matatus came in late 2009, when the then Transport Minister Amos Kimunya reported that, beginning 2010, the registration of 14-seater vans would be ended. Matatus would be enlisted under Savings and Credit Cooperatives (Saccos), making it possible for operators to get to credit and purchase the higher capacity buses.

"There is no need of having numerous little boxes hogging our roads when one large bus serves a greater population," Kimunya said.

The reasoning inside government was that the Saccos would realize the idea of self-control, where matatu crews who break the rules would face the wrath of not only the vehicle owner but also the Sacco management. The owners would likewise examine drivers and conductors and root out the individuals who were known for drunk driving and other traffic upheavals.

Despite the fact that the government later backtracked on this decision and now permits the enlistment of 14-seater vans only when they are necessary to fill a shortfall in a Sacco fleet,, the Economic Survey in 2012 demonstrated an 87% drop in the registration of the 14-seater vans while the number of buses climbed from 1,264 units in 2010 to 1,662 in 2011. The numbers have kept going up.

Former Transport Cabinet Secretary Eng. Michael Kamau seemed to suggest the magnitude of the problem in the matatu segment in a meeting MPs on the Transport Committee while he was still in office.

"Dealing with matatu drivers is difficult, given a choice I would give away the sector to another ministry. It is extremely troublesome and one can easily give up," he told the MPs.

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