Kenya’s public transport system, which is also known as the matatu industry, is the epitome of chaos and disorder. From driving on the wrong side of the road to overlapping, cartels, and flouting all possible traffic rules, the list of what is wrong with the matatu industry is endless.

There are many unroadworthy vehicles, some dirty and very old, and a culture of bribing the traffic police officers to look the other way as rules are flouted.

On the flip side, it is the solution to almost getting anywhere, and it colors the society with great expressions of art, from the graffiti and vehicle customization, to the music and inflight entertainment that they offer. The matatu culture rules in the country where alternative modes of transport are scarce and expensive.

Matatu culture, Kenya. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This has been the status for long.

Attempts to bring major disruptions in this industry have always failed. However, a different kind of service has been gaining popularity in Kenya; ride hailing companies. The two main players started operations in 2019 and have piloted their services and gone full throttle, attracting a growing number of users. However, in a different twist, the government has joined the party as a spoiler, as many Kenyans seem to think, forcing the shuttle hailing companies to halt their services.

Swvl and Little Shuttle

Little Shuttle and its Egyptian competitor Swvl, withdrew their buses from Nairobi on the 1st of October 2019 following the blacklisting of the vehicles that operate under the two companies. The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) withdrew their licenses saying that they are operating using Tours Service License (TSL) instead of commuter service license, contravening the country’s PSV regulations. NTSA said that the two companies have been offering illegal services and need to comply with the law before they can be allowed to continue with the operations.

Little’s Chief Executive, Kamal Budhabhatti, complained that NTSA was taking a retrogressive move, saying that it should instead have opted to work with them to ensure that all the partner buses are compliant and operational in absence of proper legal framework that can allow them to operate freely. He cited the case of M-PESA where the Central Bank came in after M-PESA was running, not to stop the service, but to work with Safaricom to ensure that the legal back-up for M-PESA was implemented.

What this means

The Public Service Regulations in Kenya require every bus to belong to a SACCO and ply a fixed route. This requirement is hard to implement for the bus ride-hailing firms, which ply specific routes based on demand.

Consequently, the opted to use Tours Service License which allows them to venture to any part of the country. If they opt to use a commuter service license, each bus will be forced to stick to a specific route, making it harder for them to operate.

Resistance from Matatus Owners

The public transport players like the matatu owners have always resisted the disruptive shuttle hailing companies such as Swvl and Little Shuttle. They also protested at the government’s plans to introduce a BRT, which is set to come into place in a few months.

Their argument is that the innovations are killing their businesses, and are being implemented without their involvement. They say that the disruption places the livelihoods of thousands of people at risk, as well as the billions in investments which they have accumulated.

This is the same fight that taxi operators had with Uber, Bolt, and Little Cab when they debuted in Kenya, a fight that has persisted to date. Some of their arguments are genuine, and need to be put into consideration so that the roll out does not negatively impact diligent people who are working to make a difference in the transport industry. However, the industry needs to be disrupted in a way that brings order and makes it attractive to more people in Kenya.

Little Shuttle hinted that it could be the hand of the cartels in the industry that are using NTSA to stifle their growth in Kenya.

The way out

The government knows that these buses present an opportunity to deal with congestion in the city, as they entice people to leave their cars at home while still enjoying comfort and convenience. Nairobi is one of the most congested cities in Africa, and any effort to decongest the city should be welcomed.

What the National Transport and Safety Authority should do is to exempt these shuttle hailing firms from the requirement to ply a fixed route, and work with other stakeholders to ensure that their adoption is seamless.

Alternatively, they could engage them even more to use their data to design a public transport system that works better.

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