Chinese-built expressway offers Kenya's minibuses savings amid high fuel costs

 

An aerial view of Nairobi Expressway on April 27, 2023. [David Gichuru, Standard]

The Nairobi Expressway, which can best be described as Kenya's most beautiful road, has become a favorite for the most unlikely group in the East African nation.

The 27-km highway that stretches from the south to the west of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi is now the go-to road for commuter minibus (matatu) operators at a time when fuel prices have hit a historic high in the country.

John Wafula, a matatu driver in the city, is one of the diligent users of the road built through a private-public partnership between Kenya and the Chinese government.

At 4 p.m., local time, every day, Wafula usually  drives to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), some 3 km from Nairobi city center, to pick up office workers heading home after a day's work. He loves the trip because he knows that he would take the shortest time to reach his destination -- Kitengela, some 30 km south of Nairobi, therefore, not only saving time but also fuel.

This is because he uses the Nairobi Expressway to evade the peak hour traffic jam that usually clogs the toll-free road.

"This trip caps my day because it is not only the shortest but also a lucrative one," Wafula, who works with Rembo Classic Sacco, told Xinhua in a recent interview.

From KNH, the bus journeys some 20 minutes on the thoroughfare to the exit at Mlolongo, south of Nairobi.

Wafula charges each of the 32 passengers 160 shillings (about 1.08 U.S. dollars), which is 0.4 dollars more than what buses that use the toll-free road charge, and take two hours to reach their destination.

"It makes all the economic sense to use the Expressway even if one factor in the 4.07 dollars we pay at the exit for using the road," he said.

To pay 4.07 dollars, Wafula installed the electronic payment system, further making a huge saving as those vehicles that use the manual system cough up double the amount since they don't benefit from a discount offered by MOJA Expressway Company, which manages the modern thoroughfare.

Rembo Classic Sacco started offering the service after doing a market survey, Wafula said, and since February, they have only increased fare once, from 0.95 dollars to 1.08 dollars, despite fuel prices having risen significantly during the period from 1.21 dollars and 1.1 dollars for petrol (or gasoline) and diesel to the current 1.43 dollars and 1.35 dollars, respectively.

This is due to the savings the road affords the bus operators.

The number of commuters using the service has kept growing, enabling them to increase the number of buses from two in March to eight during the evening peak hour.

A general view of the Nairobi Expressway and Westlands high-rise buildings on February 14, 2023. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

"I don't mind paying 1.08 dollars. It takes me 30 minutes from the office at KNH to Kitengela, thanks to the expressway. This is something that we could only dream of in the past," said Catherine Kariuki, a records officer.

Besides the Kitengela-Upper Hill route, several other routes have been started by commuter bus companies.

Super Metro, another matatu sacco, operates the Kitengela-Westlands route in the west of the Kenyan capital.

Then, there are dozens of others that run from the city center to various residential areas in the south of the capital, including Athi River, Mlolongo, and Syokimau.

"We run the Kitengela-Westlands route during morning and evening peak hours. So far, so good despite the high fuel prices," said James Kamau, a conductor with Super Metro. He said as fuel prices rise to a record high, the road is making bus operators save fuel costs and time, and earn some good profit.

MOJA noted that the savings on fuel made by motorists are immense.

According to the firm, a recent study highlighted that if a motorist makes 10,000 trips using the electronic payment option, they save about 314 liters of fuel. "The Nairobi Expressway not only reduces travel time but also minimizes fuel consumption, saving you money," the company said in a notice.

Constructed by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and opened for use in 2022, the Nairobi Expressway has become a game changer and a darling of motorists.

During construction, it was widely expected that the majority of the road's users would be middle- and upper-income private motorists, since matatus are mainly used by low-income earners.

As many matatus as private motorists are now using the road, with many commuters and motorists working in Upper Hill and Westlands using only the Expressway route.

MOJA Expressway CEO Steve Zhao said in a recent update that more than 17 million vehicle trips have been made on the road since it was opened for use a year ago.

He said that on average, 60,000 vehicles daily use the Expressway -- the first double-decker road in Kenya.

MOJA has made it attractive and easy for motorists to use the road, including by giving discounts to those who embrace the electronic payment system. This has made the electronic toll collection system the dominant payment method as thousands of motorists make the Expressway their road of choice.

By Brian Otieno 10 mins ago
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