Incentives needed for matatu operators to support BRT initiative

BRT lanes along Thika super highway in Nairobi. [File, Standard]
Bus rapid transport (BRT) can bring efficiency into Kenya’s transport sector, but needs deeper reflection on how it can benefit more than 70,000 workers in the industry.

The matatu industry is thought of in terms of chaos, extortion, disorganisation, harassment, noise and corruption. However, underneath this messy web is a huge ecosystem of youth looking for a living, women looking to feed their families, shoe shiners, newspaper vendors and even corporate organisations that use the matatu industry to push their agenda.

On January 28, 2019, Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia announced that Wednesdays and Saturdays would be set aside as car-free days to pave the way for the piloting of the BRT system. But this was discarded as soon as it was mentioned.

The national government, which has made great strides in developing road infrastructure, seeks to have five major routes around the city and reduce the number of 14-seater matatus in favour of 64-seater buses to manage the commute around Nairobi.

The routes, named after Kenya’s Big Five are Ndovu (Kangemi to Imara), Simba (Bomas-Ruiru and Thika Superhighway), Chui (Njiru to Showground) Kifaru (Mama Lucy to T Mall) and Nyati (Balozi to Imara).

The Government committed to having the BRT buses in Nairobi in early February. BRT is okay for the commuters, but where does that leave the workers and operators?

BRT implementation in Nairobi has largely focused on developing the infrastructure, with little focus on the socio-economic impact.

The noble idea to decongest the city and enhance transport efficiency has successfully taken off in major African cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos and Dar es Salaam, but seems to lag in Nairobi due to the complexity of the transport sector in Kenya.

Shoe shiners

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) commissioned a report dubbed Nairobi Bus Rapid Transit Labour Impact Assessment, which dissected the transport sector workforce and the potential hitches that could affect the integration of the BRT system in Kenya’s capital.

Dave Spooner from the Global Labour Institute and Eric Manga, a researcher with the University of Nairobi, have noted that a lot had not been considered on the effects of the BRT on employment. The industry, the fourth largest employer in the country, supports approximately 70,000 workers and complementary businesses such as shoe shiners.

According to the report, should BRT be implemented, 13,000 on-board crew, 7,000 service workers, and more than 61 matatu routes, over 170 saccos and 1,000 informal bus stops could be affected. BRT would only bring potentially 6,000 job opportunities.

With the high unemployment rate in Kenya, the youth turn to the industry to make a living as crew, callers, squad teams popularly known as kamagera (which swing into action when the main crew is on a break). The report noted that 70 per cent of those employed in the sector were vibrant lads and lasses under 40 years of age.

Enforcement agencies

They have some level of education, with 60 per cent having completed secondary school and about 18 per cent having attained college education.

The number of women has also increased despite the myriad risks, ranging from the long working hours, the precarious nature of the job and the harassment and extortion from passengers, their colleagues, and sometimes law enforcement agencies.

At the end of the day, some, depending on what their task is, could go home with Sh500 a day, but let’s not delve into their economic demands for now.

The owners of matatus were highly faulted in the report for slowing down the BRT implementation because a capitalistic system of setting targets for drivers and workers was what generated revenue.

Under the target system, a matatu owner tells a driver to give him a specific amount of money at the end of the day.

This could vary with the elements such as matatu strikes, rainy seasons or even police crackdowns.

The end result is that the driver has to work longer hours, drive carelessly and possibly use drugs to ease the pressure. The matatu owners are allegedly mysterious powerful cartels and politicians or even the police officers themselves. Such an environment is fertile for organised crime, pollution, high rates of accidents and corruption.

For BRT to work, the matatu owners need to become more innovative with the revenue model.

They could come in to meet the last-mile needs of commuters from the BRT final destination. For instance, from T-Mall terminus, the matatus could find revenue around the residential estates that were once uncharted.

The Government should create more incentives for youths seeking to feed off the industry to manage the oversupply of labour in the sector.

Ms Manjeru is a communications consultant with Danross Media Africa

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Bus rapid transport (BRT)Transport sectorBRT system