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Spare a thought for matatu; the bell tolls for this unique industry

Motorists are stuck in a traffic jam along Mombasa road. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Drive along Mombasa Road (one of the busiest in the city) and you quickly realise that the number of private cars far much outnumber matatus.

There were times when the newest fleet of cars on the road were matatus. You only a spot a few, and far less few people take the matatu than ever before.

For the second year in a row, the 2022 Economic Survey indicated that fewer matatus/minibuses were registered (1,024 and 822 respectively).

What is happening?

The matatu – an emblem of the entrepreneurial, can-do-spirit, stubbornness, innovativeness and a symbol of the breakdown of law and order is stuttering but remains the single-most influencer in our daily lives; you are either in one, going to catch one, being overtaken by one or being bullied out of the road by one.

The matatu is so pervasive in our lives, we cannot ignore it. It symbolizes so much good and bad. Largely for worse, sometimes for better. Our world has been defined by the matatu sub-culture, it even got into Kenya’s idiom. And so, I wonder if the bond between the matatu and the Kenyan public will ever be broken, the dreadful ride and the daily brush with death notwithstanding.

Thanks to technological disruption from Uber, Bolt and other ride-hailing apps, it might be a matter of time before the matatu makes the last lap. New road infrastructure increasingly favour non-motorised transport which many consider cheaper, faster and healthier.

Also, as living standards rise, there is demand for a decent drive to work and back home; and as more people reside in gated communities, car-pooling becomes the norm rather than the exception. And then boda boda happened.

Most importantly, as economic prospects get better, most of those living off the 100,000 or so matatus will get into the formal economy. Gavin Kitching, British author and professor of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales argues that the informal sector – including the matatu, mama mboga, boda boda - is “a place where people go whose only options are worse.”

Yet despite that, the place of the matatu in the psyche of the nation is there, perhaps in the national archives as a footnote. It is a whole ecosystem that is sustained by thuggishness.

I think that the matatu will be no more in 10 or less years. With several forces buffeting it including the rollout of BRT and road infrastructure like the Nairobi Expressway that don’t favour random bus stops.

It might reappear in another format especially as government moves back into public transport translating to a cheaper, orderly, reliable and efficient means of moving people from one place to another. These aren’t conditions under which the iconic matatu will thrive.

Last week, the design of the New Central Railway Station and Public Realm – part of the wider Nairobi Railway City redevelopment programme was launched.

Our obsession with the matatu goes beyond its functional and utilitarian aspects. Its reliability and robustness is never in doubt. It is efficient, indiscriminate and on the spot.

But customer service was never in the bargain.

It throbs with non-conformity, outright deviance at times bordering on the suicidal.

Indeed, at one point many feared that competition would push it off the road, but alas, it endured the entry of the comfier and less noisier minibuses. The pleasant experience of boarding a shuttle where there is room for a civilised chat, reading a newspaper, a novel and of course having those satisfying quiet moments far outweighs the rigours of getting into a matatu.

Like other sectors, public transport was also knocked sideways by the Covid -19 pandemic. The matatu industry is yet to recover. All indications are, it might not as commuters opt for other faster, cheaper and safer substitutes of getting to work, shopping or going out.

What does the death of the matatu portent? Kenya holds the dubious distinction of being among countries in the world with more road fatalities; more than those with more cars and people on the road, most of the fatalities in matatus. Fewer matatus means fewer road accidents and therefore fewer insurance claims.

On average, because of the greed for higher mark-ups, most are badly, if ever, maintained leading to increased wear and tear. And so matatus pollute the environment the most. Its exit will be a boon to the environment. Meaning people will be healthier. A healthy population works harder and longer. Sick leaves are costly to organizations.

Additionally, the matatu sits atop the bribery enterprise that is chocking and turning private enterprise into unworthy venture. Its fall will surely topple the cartels in the police and the transport sector.

Yet if you thought the matatu was ‘bad news’, the entry of the motorcycles who exhibit the same madness, if not of worse degree than the matatus is something to chew over.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group