A passenger aboard a Super Metro Sacco matatu designed in compliance to Covid-19 rules for social distancing. Matatu owners are redesigning seatings to meet the new safety rules. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Stanley Mbuthia’s 33-seater minibus plying the Nairobi-Warren-Kenyatta University route is an oddity to passengers.

He says whenever passengers board the bus, they are struck by the seat arrangement.

Ordinarily, bus seats are set in pairs but in Mbuthia’s, on one side of the bus, there is a column of lone seats and on the other, a column of three attached seats.

“Some are sceptical but the majority are curious and ask where I got the design from,” Mbuthia told The Standard yesterday.

Since March when the first case of coronavirus was reported in the country, the government directed PSVs to limit the number of passengers.

According to the guidelines, 14-seater matatus are allowed to carry only 10 passengers including the driver and crew while 33-seaters 18 passengers.

The limit for 51-seater buses is 30 passengers including the driver and crew. Dwindling earnings from the business has forced operators such as Mbuthia back to the fabricators for seat redesign. 

“At least we get to make some more money because whereas we were carrying 16 passengers, now we can carry 23. We can now pay the driver and the conductor like before and the vehicle owner will still make his money,” he said.

He said the matatu sector has to adapt to the new normal if they have to remain in business.

“If that will mean that we have to permanently reduce the number of passengers that we are ferrying, then we are ready to do that. We have adjusted and paid insurance according to the new capacity,” he said. 

While Mbuthia is optimistic that when things go back to normal matatu operators might start carrying the normal capacity of passengers, Nelson Mwangi has made a radical decision - to remove one seat altogether.

Mwangi, a matatu owner and the chairperson of Super Metro Limited which operates a fleet of matatus, said they had found a way to ensure that the passengers observe social distancing. 

Some 10 vehicles operated by the company have already reduced the number of seats. 

“It is a win-win situation for the customer, the owner and even the government. The customer will be more comfortable, pay less and maintain the social distance; we will keep the Covid-19 numbers down and the investor, who was losing before, will make a little out of it,” he said.

“Once you come up with a way to make sure that every passenger is occupying a seat and none remains for another customer, then you are sure excess passengers will not be carried,” he said.

Mwangi said the company had written to National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) for approval.

This has won plaudits from commuters who viewed matatus carrying fewer passengers as a milestone in the fight against the pandemic.

“Covid-19 is slowly turning our culture for the better. Safer matatus are coming,” a Twitter user, Louis, said.

Mwangi said if they get the NTSA approval then they will permanently adopt the arrangement.

“It has been our wish to turn around the sector. When we were changing these seats our wish was that they would remain like that even after the pandemic for the comfort of the customer,” he said.

Other matatu Saccos that are aping the arrangement of seats are Nawasuku, Lopha, Nawaku and Nazigi.

Matatu Welfare Association Chairperson Dickson Mbugua said the earnings for the matatus had dropped significantly since they were carrying half the capacity and it was impossible to increase fare on some routes. 

“The crew have been forced to revert to the old fare since people have no money to pay the increased fare and matatus are taking longer to fill up. These 33 seaters are bringing home between Sh2,000 and 3,000 and that is when they have really tried yet they used to do double that,” he said.

He noted that the operational costs had remained the same despite the reduced earnings and this has led to the seat redesign.

“Easy Coach were the first one to do that. Now the other transport operators are in a dilemma whether to go that direction. Matatus are redesigning because of the five or six additional seats to make more money,” he said.

However to some, the cost of seat redesign is prohibitive, he said. “It is more than Sh200,000 and that is an added cost that most are unsure whether they will recoup,” Mbugua said.

But acting Director Public Health Francis Kuria said the Covid-19 guidelines for public transport operators which set the new capacity for vehicles remained the same.

“We gave recommendations on the capacity that vehicles could carry adequately and the protocols were developed between the ministries of Health and Transport. They have not changed; a 33-seater bus can only carry 18 passengers,” he said.