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Underworld of the matatu industry

The Kenyan public transport sector is entirely privatised, which brings with it complicated issues. the industry seeming unregulated, is synonymous with chaos, untouchable cartels and gangs. Pimped up PSVs operating in major cities are also a thing unique to the country, making it a tourist attraction the world over. CYNTHIA MUKANZI and WAMBUI VIRGINIA sought to decode the intricate industry

On one hot weekday afternoon, watching Ruai’s popular nganya Blue Haze speed by in town, is a reminder of how the matatu industry has become a spectacle of curiosity, and a part of Kenya’s identity with a history traced back to the colonial era.

The history of public transport goes back to the colonial period. In 1934, the Overseas Transport Company (OTC) of London brought in the first local 13-fleet buses on 12 routes.

The buses, which would later be called Kenya Bus Services (KBS), enjoyed monopoly in the transport sector until 1970, when Matatu Owners Association and Country Bus Owners Association stepped in to bridge the gap and feed the demand steepened by rural to urban migration.

In a past statement, Edwin Massimba, managing consultant, Kenya Bus Service Management Limited, said Nyayo Bus was introduced in 1986, but failed to establish an anchor in the market.

“In seven years, the heavily subsidised but inefficient bus company folded up, leaving the unsubsidised but efficient KBS in serious competition with a deregulated and untaxed informal sector, and in effect allowing it to operate without paying its externalities true cost,” he said.

Liberalisation of commuter services in 1991 brought the downfall of KBS, when second hand 14-seater (Nissan) mini vans hit the market and gave KBS a run for its money.

In 1998, while in the hands of Stagecoach International of Britain, KBS suffered great losses, causing 95 per cent of its shares to be resold to local investors, who renamed it Kenya Bus Services Limited.

Even then, the 14-seaters had already stolen the show, and were bringing a new phase. Court battles resulted in pawning off of the buses, and just like that, the curtain fell on a strong commuter service brand name.

Rise of matatus

Mojo of Expresso Sacco has a play station.
Mojo of Expresso Sacco has a play station.

By this time, people were investing in mini vans. At the time, the unregulated matatu industry was synonymous with chaos, cartels and gangs, which extorted matatu owners.

“The transport sector was characterised by lack of observation of traffic regulations, resulting in a large number of fatal road accidents and serious injuries.

There were times when we could not figure out whether this form of public transport was a blessing or a curse,” says Simon Kimutai, chairman of Matatu Owners Association.

He says that there were cases of passengers being mistreated, unending theft, hijacking, sexual harassment and even physical abuse, but according to him, that has greatly reduced today.

“Today, thanks to the efforts of the stakeholders, especially the vehicle owners and the government, policy measures have been put in place to make Public Service Vehicles (PSV) a sober industry that woos many investors yearly.

PSV operators are now required to join independent, government-registered transport companies or Savings and Credit Co-operatives (saccos),” says Kimutai.

Nganya takeover

The colourful carriers have evolved into a phenomenon that is an outstanding part of Kenya’s culture. In their distinctive designs, matatus express multiple and diverse local aspects of life.

The industry has become an exhibition of the entrepreneurial and creative side of artistic individuals. It has also developed to become a homegrown and locally spearheaded touristic attraction in postcolonial Kenya.

The vibrant matatu culture has taken root and brought with it the revered nganyas. The flamboyant nganyas have become game changers, giving rise to a public transport sector seen nowhere else in the world.

Investors in the matatu business are blowing millions of cash, as much as Sh7 million, to ‘pimp’ their vehicles in order to attract passengers.

Pimping may include graffiti on the exterior, adding spark to the wheel rims, redefining the body structure, fitting the interior with TV screens, woofers, fridges, play stations, CCTV cameras, putting in a colourful interior design and so much more.

Mojo of Expresso Sacco has a play station, while Punisher of the Ngong route has a fridge. For years now, main influencers of nganya themes are American hip-hop, as well as western films and football.

“I wanted to get in the business, and I knew the only way to make it was by conforming to the current trends set by nganyas. The bar has been set high and competition is rife. You can only stay in the game if you are willing to spend,” says Mark Muya, a matatu owner in the 125/126 Rongai route.

Money minter crews

There are drivers, conductors (makangas or kanges), kamageras and those who are used as poster passengers. Poster passengers make it look like the vehicle has passengers and almost ready to leave the stop, only for them to alight as people keep boarding.

In short, it is a ploy to entice passengers and fill the vehicle faster. They make at least Sh20 per sitting. Kamageras are usually stationed at stops. “Their job is to make sure there is order and sanity.

They also lure passengers and fill mathrees. Kamageras are not employed by any matatu, but most of them are former crew members and are not affiliated to any sacco,” says Branden Marshall, a matatu promoter.

They are then paid Sh200 per matatu they fill. They can work for any sacco, but of the same route. Some get poached, just as makangas and drivers are whisked from one sacco or route to the other.

While kamageras get paid instantly, makangas and drivers receive their dues either daily or monthly. “It depends on the matatu owner and what deal he or she has struck with their crew.

If I’m the owner, and expect Sh13,000 a day, my crew should bring that at the end of the day. Whatever else they make above that amount will be theirs to share amongst themselves,” says Marshall.

Others work from Monday to Saturday, and make their cut on Sunday when their bosses give them a green light to hustle. Makangas usually make about Sh1,000-Sh3,000 per day, and on a good day, even more than that. There are also those estate-based touts who fill matatus with passengers, and get Sh20 to Sh50 per round.

Ladies love for kanges

Campus girls, and sometimes working class women, seem to have a thing for kanges, especially the flamboyant ones. They sometimes have dangerous liaisons with the playboys, and in return enjoy favours such as free rides, VIP sections in the nganyas, seat reservation, or even cash.

“Girls just love us. Some say we are fun, but of course we are well aware that some of them are attracted to us because they think we drip cash,” says Peter Muoni, an Ummoinner makanga.

Whether it is the thrill of their carefree nature, money, or free rides, the matrix behind this attraction remains somewhat a mystery.

Profitable empires

It is not frequently highlighted how the matatu industry is one of the most profitable businesses in Kenya today. However, the matatu sector has been shadowy over the fact that it’s an unspoken cartel that is difficult to be fully unmasked.

The industry is mostly run by politicians, policemen, and powerful businessmen, who own fleets, especially the posh and flashy ones. An official from one of the Saccos in Nairobi gave details of what happens in a day inside the matatu world.

Extortion

The whole matatu business begins with signing and paying for the TLB licence, before being allowed to operate as a PSV. The matatu is then registered to a Sacco, under which it will operate.

Once done with all the formalities, the matatu is ready to hit the road. “That’s where it all begins,” says Peter Njenga, an official with RiZen Sacco. A matatu parts with a lot of money in a single day, just to be able to operate.

On a normal day, the matatu starts operating at around five in the morning,” he continues. In every stage, where a matatu picks passengers, there’s a daily fee of Sh150.

There’s a sacco official at a specific designated stage who collects Sh100 in the morning rush hour. During rush hour, busy routes like Jogoo Road are usually jam-packed, and nganyas are forced to change routes, after being tipped by an informer from another route. This one is usually given Sh50 for that.

A matatu is not supposed to ply a route that it does not belong to. For instance, if a matatu plying the Jogoo Road route decides to use Juja Road, the matatu will pay Sh100 to some officials who are in charge of that route.

So, supposedly 500 different matatus use a route that is not theirs, the other route’s officials will collect over Sh50,000 in a couple of hours.

That is not all, once the matatu gets to the estate, there is usually a mini break for the conductor and the driver. Those who take over usually go round the estate, dropping and picking passengers.

This is commonly known as ‘squads’. The matatu usually gives the ‘squad’ conductor Sh50 and the driver Sh100. At the close of business, the matatu sacco collects Sh500 from each matatu registered under its sacco, and at the end of month, the county government collects Sh5,000 from each matatu in every sacco.

This is on top of Sh10,000 that county officials collect from each PSV sacco in the city every month. This means that if a sacco has 500 vehicles, and each vehicle pays Sh5,000 monthly to the county, then it collects a total of Sh2.5 million a month from most of the major saccos.

The number of saccos in Nairobi is over 1,000, including those that travel long distances. This is to mean that the county government could easily collect about Sh10 million in a month for fees.

Unruliness

Peter adds that the cash matatus have to part with each day doesn’t end there. They have to pay their way to being “above the law”. The crewmembers are known to be rogue and ever breaking the law, but they rarely get arrested.

“Most matatu owners are powerful people. We usually get arrested, but we can’t stay arrested. These days, there is a police operation on the roads almost every other day. Most of these posh matatus have gone against the standard rule of a PSV.

They have tinted windows, ‘debe’ (loud music), ‘kinyambi’ (turbo engine), most conductors don’t have uniforms and sometimes these vehicles are considered unroadworthy, but they still operate,” he went on.

A police officer will board the matatu as if to impound it or arrest the crewmembers, but once it reaches town, they collect Sh200 from the matatu and it is released. This usually happens between 6am to 10am in the morning.

Managing the mayhem

The government introduced the requirement that each matatu operates under a sacco, to try to manage the mayhem associated with the industry. Before this, the sector had no set of rules or organisation.

According to Peter, saccos have helped manage the unruly behaviour. “Saccos were introduced to bring sanity and order on the roads. Many passengers were complaining of harassment and even theft in matatus.

Nowadays, that has reduced, because passengers can now report such incidences, and the sacco is held responsible. He adds that unlike before, when matatu jobs were considered informal and rogue, saccos have changed this, making the crewmembers more responsible and well trained professionals.

“The stereotyping that matatu operators are thugs and goons has lessened. Also, the conductors and drivers used to squander money, in mind that there was more to be made the next day.

Saccos were also introduced to help these workers save their money. A portion of their salary is deducted and saved by the sacco,” he explained.

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