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Matatu sector: Where anarchy brings in the money

By Awal Mohammed | Apr 25th 2021 | 5 min read
By Awal Mohammed | April 25th 2021

Ngara Bus Park in Nairobi which accommodates matatus and buses plying Thika road.[Boniface Okendo,Standard]

Nothing beats the hustle of commuting using public transport in Nairobi.

For the matatu crew, it is a daily struggle against long traffic hours and pressure from owners of the vehicles to beat the profit target.

Every law is broken for the shilling to be made. The public service vehicle (PSV) sector thrives on anarchy.

From the disorder and chaos, the operators mint millions from an informal but vital system that they have tailored to suit their needs.

Sandwiched between the chaos are commuters and traffic laws that are rendered useless in protecting other road users.

The masses are left at the mercy of public transport systems that are underdeveloped and overwhelmed by the fast-growing number of urban dwellers.

Efforts by government over the years to streamline the sector have failed, with the industry players seen to outwit the authorities at every turn.

The matatu sector traces its history to the early 1970s but it was not until 1984 that even the most basic regulatory framework was laid out, when licensing and inspections were introduced.

Numerous regulations

The stringent regulations of 2003, popularly known as the Michuki Rules, came close to curbing the disorder in the industry, but in a short time the operators returned to their ways.

Ironically, the PSV industry has numerous regulations that have not achieved much.

Today, an individual matatu must be associated with one of over 600 registered savings and credit societies (Saccos) in the transport sector to be able to operate on specified routes.

But the industry has a long value chain, with a single matatu arguably feeding more than five families in the capital.

All this is at the expense of the passengers.

“The owner of the matatu wants money at the end of the day, he won’t care about customer satisfaction,” says Job Omingo, a tout plying the Nairobi Mlolongo route.

“And where will I get the money to feed my family if I’m busy following rules?”

According to the Nairobi Bus Rapid Transit - Labour Impact Assessment - Research Report for January 2019, most matatu workers are in long-term informal employment.

Nearly 50 per cent of the workers interviewed had been in their respective occupations for five years or more.

The workforce is largely educated, with nearly 60 per cent having completed secondary and 18.8 per cent achieving college graduation.

Furthermore, many have additional qualifications including driving (47 per cent) and mechanical engineering (18 per cent), the report said.

The industry employs a wide range of other workers including conductors, touts, callers, vehicle washers, food and drink vendors, painters and artists, mechanics, county officials, stage clerks and Sacco employees.

The matatu is not just a business for the low-income and self-employed workers, it is big business that also involves the affluent. 

But the industry players have resisted change because of the unrecorded cash it mints in a day.

The crew go to any lengths to beat the daily targets set by the owners, while ensuring they get extra cash that goes directly to their pockets without accounting to anyone.

The chase for cash means the matatu disregards the Traffic Act on reckless driving.

According to the law, for a first conviction for speeding and reckless driving the offender gets a  fine not exceeding Sh100,000, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.

Repeat offenders, where many matatu drivers in the city could fall, should get a fine not exceeding Sh300,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, and possible cancellation of the driving licence.

“We know these rules, and the traffic police know them as well, but I must take this risk to make cash unless I want to remain jobless,” says Mike Owino, a tout on the Eastleigh route.

“If I’m caught, I will part with Sh500 which I will up make for with more trips.”

According to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), there has been an increase in road accidents since 2019.

The NTSA statistics reveal that between January 1 and September 30 last year, 2,689 people died in road accidents compared to 2,655 over the same period in 2019, reflecting a 1.3 per cent increase.

However, the troubling data - just like every year - is not likely to scare the PSV operators as long as they can guarantee their daily purse.

For instance, along Mombasa Road between Syokimau and the JKIA junction, the matatu operating the route have a civilian traffic marshal during rush hour.

His main duty is to inform the crew if it is safe to overlap on the wrong side without getting caught by the traffic police.

Each matatu gives him at least Sh50.

“For us it’s good business. It’s better we give him Sh50 than get caught by traffic police, waste time and end up paying in excess of Sh5,000,” says a matatu driver who sought anonymity.

“He saves us a lot both in money and time.” 

The operators often complain of high operating costs, which they use to justify increase fares.

In Nairobi, fares vary depending on the time of day, date, weather conditions, prevailing demand and fares charged by buses.

“At each stage we have a group of young men who help in calling the commuters. They also inform us what fare to charge depending on the demand,” says Owino.

Matatu crews take their time while touting for passengers and then make up for the delay by driving at breakneck speed between stops.

Speed limits

They break speed limits, pull out in front of other motorists and stop in the middle of the road rather than pulling in to the side.

“I have wasted an hour at the stage waiting for passengers. That is time wasted without money, so I have to speed to ensure I go for more trips to meet my target,” says Owino.

Overloading and matatus are synonymous; it is only the Covid-19 pandemic that temporarily stopped the crime.

Operators claim they are pushed to carry more passengers because vehicles are not enough during peak hours.

This argument camouflages their desire to make more coins at the risk of the lives of passengers and other road users.

“Do you think we can survive during this Corona period carrying at half capacity and make gains?” poses Omingo.

“We have to carry full capacity at night to at least complement our daily earnings.”

For matatus, it seems rules must be broken for money to be made.

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