Living in the nineties in wild Kenya was not an easy task, but Joe Ndiritu boy grew an enjoyment out of commuting in colorful informal mass transit buses given the name “Matatus.” “Tatu” means “three” in Swahili slang, which was the fare per bus ride once upon a time in Kenyan Shillings (KES). Now, bus tickets range from KES 20 (20 cents) to KES 100 ($1). “Having been brought up in a family that had a transistor radio made me like commuting with Matatus fitted with hi-fi radio cassette systems,” Joe Ndiritu tells progrss. Later, he joined as a driver to earn a living at the age of 14. “I became addicted to this work, never minding [its] conditions,” he adds. Little did he know that, one day, he would become the Chairman of the Public Transport Operators Union.

informal mass transit

Courtesy of Digital Matatus.

Privately-owned informal mass transit that come in the form of small recycled buses with bright illustrations painted on them to attract customers, Matatus first came to Nairobi in the 1960s They were initially introduced as a result of the absence of affordable and accessible state-run mass transit. Between 1934 and the early 1970s, public transport in Kenya was afforded by the colonial Kenya Bus Service, which at the time was introduced by the Overseas Transport Company of London. But in the early 1970s, that era came to an end due to the great demand for upcountry travel. In 1986, the country got a new bus service – the state-run Nyayo Bus Service, which was nationally celebrated, although, according to Ndiritu, it made “serious losses” due to mismanagement.

In 1973, Matatus were legalized and the government became a stakeholder. Years later, Matatus spread in capitals across East Africa, acting as informal transport networks similar to microbuses in Egypt or auto-rickshaws in India. Pretty much like microbus drivers in Cairo, in the early 2000s, Matatu drivers started to become stigmatized as outlaws, reckless drivers and gangsters.

According to “Informal 2.0: Seeing and Improving Urban Informal Practices through Digital Technologies The Digital Matatus case in Nairobi,” a report published by five researchers from University of Columbia, Nairobi and MIT, there are roughly 20,000 Matatus operating in Nairobi, and 80,000 operating in the whole of Kenya. Matatus have become a central part of Kenyan citizens’ daily life. The study notes that, in the capital, less than 20 percent of the population has a car and 70 percent of the city’s dwellers use Matatus everyday. 

informal mass transit

Planning and illustrating maps. Courtesy of Digital Matatus.

Jacqueline Klopp, Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development, is one of the co-authors of the study and one of the researchers behind Digital Matatus – a project supported by the Rockefeller Foundation that aims to provide commuters as well as drivers with digital data about widespread informal mass transit to make life easier. So far, Digital Matatus has mapped the routes that Matatus take throughout the city.

Originally from New York City, Klopp has been living in Kenya for more than 20 years. In 2009, she started working on urban issues in Nairobi with generous funding from the the Swedish Volvo Research And Educational Foundations. “One of the things that was very clear was that the Matatus were very important to the city,” she tells progrss. “And yet when we look at the vision of Nairobi [Metro 2030 Strategy], a big part was missing about public transport…so it seemed like a puzzle.”

One of the things that especially struck Klopp was the fact that the Mombasa-Nairobi highway was built without accounting for public transport, even as people gathered on the side of the highway, either to walk or hail for a ride. “And they’re the majority – so it seemed unfair.” In the meantime, Klopp found a group of techies in Nairobi working to develop tools similar to those used in New York City to provide commuters with interactive apps to help them navigate the city.

Informal Mass Transit

Courtesy of Digital Matatus.

“I was inspired by [the tech people] to think how are they doing planning in a city without a transport map,” Klopp reflects, adding that she realized that even young middle class people in Kenya like their Matatus, because it gets them from place to place, which allows them to socialize.

So, Klopp teamed up with Sarah Williams from Civic Digital Design Lab, Peter Waiganjo and Dan Orwa from University of Nairobi’s School of Computing and Informatics and Adam White from Groupshot – a research collective that designs, educates and advises on projects at the intersection of innovation, social entrepreneurship and global development.

Another form of informal mass transit that emerged recently in Kenya’s capital is “boda boda” – a name given to motorcycles, which bridging the gap between those who can afford Mattatu rides and those who cannot. The example mirrors successful models in other cities, particularly in Southeast Asia. Much like Kenya, India’s public transportation couldn’t keep up with the surge of rapid urbanization happening in the last few decades. So, as of 2015, Indian cities like Goa and Haryana allowed motorcycles to be used as taxis. The solution has been especially popular as a way to circumvent the city’s congestion, but has created a new host of challenges – namely, rising traffic-related deaths – with a whole new ward in the Main Hospital in Nairobi for crash victims of motorcycles, Klopp says. “I personally know to people who have died in these crashes.”

Last month, Nairobi governor Mike Sonko announced a plan to ban Matatus from the affluent Central Business District (CBD). “I have directed that there be no obstruction, noise pollution, and no U-turn. Let those with loud music play it after they leave the CBD, let’s respect businesses in the city,” he said. “Matatus accessing the CBD should test temporary measures like dropping passengers at roundabouts on the edges of the city centre. This is just a proposal. If they must enter the CBD let them drop the in various roundabouts at the Haile Selassie, Globe Cinema, University Way and others and see if it works.” But following by an outcry by Matatu owners, he made several concessions.

Ndiritu illustrates the organizational relationship between Matatus and the authorities, which is far from seamless. A 25-seat bus pays a tax in advance worth of KES 20,000 ($193) per annum to the Kenya Revenue Authority and a monthly parking fee of KES 7,000 ($67.8) to the Nairobi County Authority. Other taxes come in the form of other licenses under the National Transport and Safety Authority Act. The authorities to which the taxes are paid often rarely give the drivers anything in return. “In any case, we are punished through courts for flouting rules and regulations, like obstruction by picking or dropping or double parking,” Ndiritu says.

Informal mass transit, like Matatus, is also threatened by successful public transport systems. The city’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), for example, is expected to take its toll on the Matatu ecosystem. Ndiritu gives another example with the Standard Gauge Railway, which has made bus companies operating from Mombasa to re-think their model of doing business in public transport.

In spite the potential threats to it, Ndiritu is optimistic and believes Matatus will outlive other transit projects. “Matatus are like roaches. They will easily adapt to new systems and situations,” Ndiritu concludes.