One of the surest ways to fall into depression in Kenya is to own a matatu.
According to some matatu owners, dealing with touts, conductors, Saccos and traffic police officers daily can make you experience the five hallmark signs of depression that include sadness, irritability, loss of sleep, suicidal thoughts and loss of appetite.
When Benjamin Galo decided to buy a matatu, it was out of pure fantasy. He had not studied the industry traits to understand its dynamics.
“I was travelling in a matatu when a conversation between the driver and conductor caught my attention. It was around midday, and the conductor proudly said he had already collected Sh8,000 and by his estimation, they could make Sh10,000 that day,” he said.
“They spoke casually as if there wasn’t anybody else in the vehicle. The figures they bandied were so impressive. I made an instant decision to buy a matatu,” he added.
Galo said, at the time, he had some savings and the conversation he had eavesdropped on persuaded him to make an instant decision to make a down-payment on a Toyota van, what industry players call Shark.
“It was simple arithmetic for me. Sh9,000 a day would bring me a tidy sum of Sh270,000 a month or Sh3.2 million annually. I saw a very bright future ahead of me.”
Galo admits he was unprepared for the hidden costs that come with the business. And one year down the line, he was driven out of business. He was left with a useless shell of a vehicle.
Unknown to him, the matatu industry is in the tight grip of cartels that ruthlessly control it in all major towns across the country.
“There is a mandatory government directive that all matatus operate under Saccos. What I did not know at the time was that joining a Sacco was an expensive affair.”
Depending on how established a Sacco is, the joining fee ranges between Sh30,000 and Sh60,000, for which there is no receipt, and one is not supposed to ask questions.
“The choice is yours; to pay and get requisite operation licences or decline and be saddled with a vehicle that cannot operate,” said Edward Saina.
He avers that buying a matatu is akin to laying the foundation for a sinkhole that drains whatever profits one envisages.
Saina bought a slightly used matatu with the pension he got after retiring from a parastatal.
“I banked on making money out of the matatu business to start another business and later buy a piece of land. Instead, my driver and conductor always came up with excuses why they did not make good money on any day,” he said.
Within six months, the vehicle was grounded. “I was left penniless and could not repair the vehicle that required a new engine and differential. I dismantled it and sold the parts that were still in good shape. That is how all my pension went down the sinkhole.”
Mary Oleve says she registered her vehicle under a Sacco in Kakamega.
Once registered, she was told to pay Sh200 daily on the understanding that should she quit the business, they would refund the money. However, shock awaited her when she quit and sought refund. “I was told there was no refund because the money was for office maintenance. The irony is that there is no physical office to maintain. While ordinary Saccos pay dividends at the end of the year, most, if not all matatu Saccos, do not,” she added.
To pick up passengers from a stage, christened “shimo”, a vehicle owner pays Sh50,000. No receipt.
Every time a vehicle enters a town manned by county enforcement officers, they charge Sh200.
Touts who often laze on the outskirts of town charge between Sh20 and Sh50 per vehicle. Touts who shout themselves hoarse while calling passengers, even when there is no need, demand Sh300 per trip from every vehicle once it is full.
“At every police check, the conductor parts with Sh100, whether the vehicle meets the required standards or not. If the police officers see anything untoward, the surcharge amount goes up. This money is normally hidden in driving licences, clenched fists and transferred during a handshake or dropped on the ground at the feet of the police officer.”
Chairman of Western Safari Sacco Jeremiah Karungani said despite existence of rogue Saccos, many are organised.
“I can’t write off existence of briefcase Saccos, but the truth is most Saccos are well organised,” he said, adding: “For us, the registration fee is Sh25,000. Thereafter, a member pays Sh1,000 daily, being their savings. Those savings enable members to take loans. There are operational costs like purchase of receipt books, airtime, bundles, payment of rent, water and electricity bills, which must be footed by members.”
In 2016, Simon Kimutai, who was the Matatu Owners Association Chairman, said matatu owners had become slaves because other people benefited from their sweat. According to Transparency Internal, traffic police officers have topped the corruption charts for years running.
Only recently, the police’s top echelon banned the roadblocks after acknowledging they had been turned into corruption tools.
“The worst part is that matatu crew are liars to their bone marrows. No matter how much money they make in a day, if the agreement between the crew and their employer is to bring Sh4,000 daily, that is all they remit even if they make Sh10,000,” he said.
They are never short of excuses, from vehicle maintenance, spending more on police checks, bad days to fewer trips.
Allan Mbarani has been in the transport industry for a long time and blames matatu owners for their woes. “Many take loans to purchase vehicles. They hire drivers and give them impossible targets. When drivers fail to deliver, they get fired,” he said.
“When you fire drivers, word spreads that you are a bad employer. Any driver and conductor you hire after that knows they can be fired any time. Under such circumstances, they will take precautions and undercut you,” he added.
Most people who get into matatu business admit the industry is running the Mafia-style.