Tuk tuks are taking over public transport in the lakeside city of Kisumu, leaving matatus choking in a competitive race for passengers.

Passengers to the various neighbourhoods in the city now prefer using the ubiquitous three-wheeled ‘chuggers’ rather than matatus.

The influx of the three-seater improvised scooters is evident all over the city, taking control of streets near major malls, as well as the main routes in Kisumu

The pervasive contraptions on wheels are hated and loved in equal measure. They are considered a nuisance by many motorists and the police, but embraced for their convenience, affordability and doorstep drops by many low-income earners in the city.

Commuters say they are faster and can easily access narrow paths within estates that matatus cannot venture into.

Further, because they can only carry three passengers at a time, they don’t take too long waiting for fares and disembarking is also just a quick hop. And then there’s the perceived flexibility of the ‘drivers,’ who technically are riders, who double up as ‘dial a cab’ service providers and can respond to emergency calls like ferrying patients to hospitals at odd hours.

“These people (tuk tuk operators) do not harass passengers, they drop you at your exact stop unlike matatus who though can pick you anywhere, will nonetheless insist on dropping you at designated stages, even if this is way off from your preferred stop,” said a lady commuter.

They have already formed an association, which will also act as their sacco and self-regulate their operations to ensure they take over public transport in the city.

According to a member of the association, registrations are ongoing to bring the hundreds of tuk tuk operators in Kisumu County under one umbrella.

Area Traffic Commandant, Joshua Omukata, says that even though tuk tuks are not meant for public transport, they can ply any route if they meet traffic regulations. Their resilience in the industry is in no doubt, having survived the numerous police operations and continue to offer a much-needed service, as well as extending access to public transport in previously inaccessible areas that forced residents to walk long distances to board matatus.

“In most cases, they are used as taxis and are preferred by many commuters in the area,” said Omukata.

He reveals that tuk tuks rarely flout traffic laws: “Since I was posted to this area, I am yet to handle a road accident case involving a tuk tuk. I believe they are quick to dialogue and solve minor accidents and misunderstandings on the road with other motorists, without unnecessarily involving the police.”

When Victor Omondi started his tuk tuk business five years ago, there were very few passenger scooters in Kisumu and passengers shunned them over safety concerns.

It was hard in the beginning and the trickle of customers lead to huge losses. But once the commuters gained confidence and started using the tuk tuks, business surged and took an upward turn, threatening the long-established matatus in a cut-throat competition for fares.

With booming business came vested interests and turf wars amongst the operators over control of certain routes.

This fierce rivalry saw several tuk tuks and matatus getting burnt by rowdy operators, especially in the Nyalenda and Kondele areas in the fight to command the transport routes.

It took the intervention of the police to settle the war in Nyalenda two years ago, where different groups lay claim to the route. But when the dust settled, it’s the matatus who were the eventual losers. Tuk tuks took over the route and won the hearts of the residents. Today, no matatu plies the Nyalenda route.

Eclesiastes Onyango, the chairman of Mama Safi Bodaboda Operators says that the market has been liberalised and this has led to stiff competition in the sector.

“It is only the Kondele route that still poses a problem for tuk tuks, since we are still to fully access the area. Tuk tuks in Kondele operate as private taxis, not as public service vehicles to compete with matatus,” said Onyango. Omondi is contented with his business and discloses that you can recoup your investment in one year, if you get “a good driver.”

Dunga, Nyalenda, Milimani, Makasembo, Ondiek, Polyview and Arina residents have accepted the change and now live without matatus.

Photo: Courtesy