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Molo Line’s journey to success

By - | May 10th 2012

Joseph Kariuki has seen matatu industry crawl through the chaotic attempts at regulation by Government for last 28 years.
Seated in his second floor office in Nakuru, Kariuki is the chairperson of the Molo Line services, which was formed in 1994 with a vision of bringing order in the industry.

Matatus were first recognised in 1973 by the then president Kenyatta. The sector formed a nation-wide organisation under the name ‘Matatu Vehicles Owners Association’ (MVOA) which allocated routes and controlled operations of the industry.

Over the years, MVOA’s influence grew into politics. The government then moved in and banned and disbanded the body in 1988. The move caused panic in the industry and led to further chaos as Government cracked down on matatu owners who attempted to form Saccos.

“Our attempts to form a matatu sacco failed in 1989-1995 because the Government was totally against it. In fact it was only after we registered a limited liability company in 1994 when we were allowed to operate freely,” Kariuki notes.
By this time, the matatu industry was chaotic and unregulated, and had gained a negative perception from commuters.  “Passengers used to be manhandled at the stage by touts. Moreover, there was no clear organisation of vehicles, especially in terms of who goes first in the line.”

Molo Line Nissan matatus. [PHOTO: BONIFACE THUKU/Standard]

With  an  initial  capital injection  of  Sh700,000, Molo Line started services in Nakuru main bus terminal in 1995. Its first aim was to transform the attitude of commuters and other stakeholders.
“We introduced a queuing system where passengers will queue for tickets and to reduce touting, we put up signs where specific matatus will be to direct passengers.”

Stop touting
“By the end of 1996, we had stopped the rampant touting,” says Kariuki.
In a bid to inject new ideas, Kariuki travelled to Kampala for two weeks to study how the matatu industry operated in the Ugandan Capital city. He discovered that the matatus there were more disciplined than their Kenyan counterparts.
“In Kampala, the passengers were very discipline and conductors respected commuters. Passengers, for instance, don’t board a matatu when it was full,” Kariuki noted.

After this, Kariuki met with stakeholders in the company and resolved to end the touting. This led to introduction of uniforms for drivers and conductors by the management in 1998.
The company also started undertaking security checks after carjacking became prevalent. At the time, thugs had begun targeting business people who commuted using the matatus. The firm also took their drivers and conductors customer care practices to enable them handle passengers professionally, and improve services.

“These people were previously touts in the matatu stage. So we had to rehabilitate them before they worked for us. We further gave them identification badges, a move which excited passengers and left the traffic police dismayed,” Kariuki avers.
Kariuki adds that the resolve at Molo Line services was to ensure that the passengers enjoyed their trip and arrived at their destination safely. The company then decided to face-out the 18-seater matatus, and bring comfortable 14-seater matatu.

However, this change meant the consumers would have to pay more for the comfort
“In 2000, we introduced the 14-seater alongside the existing 18-seaters. However, people shunned it since the then fares to Nairobi was Sh150 for 18-seater and Sh200 for 14-seater,” Kariuki explains.

This stifled their growth for a while. But their fortuned turned in 2004, after the then Minister of Transport, John Michuki, introduces what are now famously called the ‘Michuki rules’.
“We moved very fast and introduced safety belts in our 14-seater matatus. This move was seen by our competitors — who were at that time plotting to strike — as a betrayal,” says Kariuki.

Molo Line services complied with the Government regulation ahead of many matatu operators. The firm was even one of the few that participated in flagging off by vice-president at Uhuru Park in Nairobi.

“Our vehicles became an example for the industry and in subsequent shows we showed those in the matatu sector how the seat belts were installed,” Kariuki says. Kariuki says the new regulations came with many benefits including less accidents, and lower overhead costs, since the spending on maintenance — brought about by wear and tear occasioned by bad roads and over speeding — were tremendously reduced. By this time, Kariuki’s dream had been realised. But he was not done yet.

“I fancied introducing prestige services where seating arrangement will be akin to tours and travel cabs,” Kariuki says.
So in 2004, Molo Line rolled out its prestige shuttle. To avoid competition from 14-seaters as witnessed earlier, they set up offices at highway towers along Nakuru-Nairobi highway in Nakuru town away from the bus park. “In the first months of operation it was harder to get passengers as people saw it as overpriced. This move was not an easy one as passengers trickled in slowly,” Kariuki avers.
But today, the service is one of their hottest selling items.

The journey of Molo Line has been exceptional. But it has not been without mishaps. For example, in 2008, the firm underwent challenging timers after they lost most of their new buses following the flawed 2007 elections.

“We had ventured into bus services in 2006 following the directive by Government to phase out 14-seater. In 2007 elections we won a tender to transport ballot boxes. Our buses were burnt down in suspicion of involvement in rigging,” Kariuki says.
“We later terminated the services and allowed members to withdraw their buses.”

Even then, Kariuki still belives that the sector is good for the economy.
“I have fought for the 14-seater not because we are in that business, but because matatu industry is a micro-enterprise which employs a lot of people. The government should let the business evolve and a time will come when 14-seater will be phased out due to competition,” Kariuki concludes.

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