A Special Look At Kenya’s Public Transport and Matatu

Seeing that making public transport data-driven is a global concern, we at Iunera want to consider how public transport is organised in different countries, and thus, how our efforts will fit in such different settings. That’s why this article looks at Kenya’s transport landscape, which doesn’t bear much resemblance to the conventional ones, especially with the matatu. Could this influence the data analysis of Kenya’s transport system?

Nairobi CBD, Kenya.
As seen in Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), Kenya’s prominent transport mode is the matatu, a type of minibus. Not referring to the Ugandan video game.
Image Source: Yonko Kilasi

Kenya’s transport system

Before I talk about the matatu, let’s look at Kenya’s transport system as a whole. Referring to travel platforms like Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, and Kenya eVisa, as well as a whole host of other sources, I can say that Kenya’s transport system consists of the following (bearing in mind that I can’t cover everything):

Road

Kenya's road network
This highway is just one part of Kenya’s vast road network, which makes up over 80% of the country’s total traffic.
Image Source: Antony Trivet

Kenya’s road network is said to be very efficient, accounting for over 80% of the country’s total traffic while the remainder of 7% is mainly by trains and planes, according to “the dynamics, challenges and short history of public road passenger transport in Kenya” by Dr Gladys Moraa Marie Nyachieo of Kenyatta University. The Kenya Roads Board (KRB) claimed in its transport sector document that the road network consists of paved, gravel and earth roads, which are divided into classified roads and unclassified roads.

A paper by Kathrin Kolossa of Institut für Afrikanistik der Universität zu Köln explained that the unequally distributed road and train networks have their roots in the colonial era, built by the British for economic, strategic and political gains. Due to the convenience and cost-effectiveness of transporting goods via roads compared to trains, roads were given higher priority for international logistics, but probably at the expense of public passenger transport needs.

Train

The travel platforms don’t have much to say about Kenya’s train system apart from the daily train service between Nairobi and Mombasa. However, the KRB spilt some interesting tea about Kenya’s 3,360km single-track train system, which contains 163 crossing stations and 3 Inland Container Depots (ICDs) in total.

The train system used to play a huge role in transport but that changed in the 1970s when the government started considering trains as a major financial burden, resulting in plummeting economic contribution. The allegation was that Kenya’s train infrastructure lacked the necessary maintenance and management from its operator Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC).

Problems ranged from shortages of proper equipment and insufficient track maintenance to bad communication and lack of multilateral coordination. KRC’s bad performance drove Magadi Soda, the soda ash maker and transporter, to take back its part of the train line between Konza and Magadi into its own hands.

An old train in Kenya's Nairobi Railway Museum.
An old East African Railway’s train in Makumbusho ya reli Nairobi (Nairobi Railway Museum), a testament to Kenya’s transport history.
Image Source: David Lutta

In 2004, the Kenyan government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ugandan government to jointly concession their train systems to privately-owned Rift Valley Railways (RVR) but complications related to the concession agreement arose. Luckily, RVR did a better job at handling the finances and operations than KRC.

However, a March 2021 Global Mass Transit report indicated that KRC bounced back when it “rehabilitated more than 800km of train lines” in 2020. The same report mentioned that Kenya currently has an intercity standard gauge railway (SGR) network, a KRC-run commuter rail network and an unorganised bus system – all of which are targeted for an overhaul by 2050.

The SGR also had a rocky journey. A 2019 Bloomberg feature alleged that the Kenya SGR, as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, was not completely built and the only completed operational SGR line was between Mombasa and Nairobi. This was blamed on China withholding further funding for completion and the Chinese state media’s constant framing of the project as the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR which made the withholding easier.

With a failed plan to use the SGR’s revenue to pay back China’s loan, the costly project pushed Kenya and two other African countries involved to a state of debt and thus to make the decision to link the SGR line to a narrower colonial-era gauge railway.

Bus

A big chunk of the unorganised bus system is the Kenya Bus Company (KBC – the country’s largest bus company), Coast Bus (the oldest) and Guardian Bus Company. Buses in Kenya are said to be normally used for long-distance routes between most major towns and cities. Those seeking an organised bus system will be happy in Nairobi as the capital city is said to be “the only city [in Kenya] with an effective municipal bus service“.

Published in the Sub-Saharan African Transport Policy (SSATP), University of Nairobi lecturer Tom Opiyo shared the story of Kenya Bus Services Limited (KBS), which rolled out in 1934 and sold shares to foreign companies before being sold to Kenyan investors in 1998 while losing out to matatus (I will later discuss matatus). Since that setback, KBS has wiped its tears and toughened up by cutting corners and investing more in intercity services to stop competing with matatus in the intracity transport realm.

Author’s note: Honestly, I couldn’t find an Unsplash photo of a bus in Kenya. It’s like no one thought of uploading one and I wonder if that speaks volumes about buses in Kenya.

Boat

Fortunately for the people who depend on boats, according to the Fortune of Africa, Kenya has a boat transport system consisting of a large port in Mombasa, inland water transport in Lake Victoria and some small ports. The Kenya Ports Authority (KPA), which owns the 3 ICDs connected to the train system mentioned earlier, manages the Mombasa port.

Boats sailing at Mombasa Yacht Club
Turns out that Mombasa even has a yacht club.
Image Source: Prolific Ke

Despite hosting all types of boats for Kenya and a few other African countries, the Mombasa port still faces inefficiencies thanks to bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the Fortune of Africa also claims that Lake Victoria’s transport and a few small ports are in a sad state of neglect. Case in point, the Kenya Ferry Services (KFS), which is jointly owned by the government and KPA, is sadly inundated by outdated laws, poor safety standards, insufficient capital and a lack of third-party insurance.

And despite the availability of buses, trains and boats, the significance of these transport modes pale in comparison to paratransit.

Paratransit

The same Kenyatta University academic I mentioned earlier said that passenger transport in Kenya is dominated by private paratransit services, which have risen up to the job of transporting passengers by demand. Forms of paratransit or flexible transport services include:

Taxi

As in every country, the first obvious type of paratransit is the taxi. Apart from the usual taxi and e-hailing services that we’re familiar with, there are shared taxis, usually in the form of 8-seater Peugeot 505 station wagons. As the name suggests, passengers share taxi rides together like they’re carpooling.

Boda-boda

Boda-bodas are bicycle or motorcycle taxis, which are popular among locals and available almost anywhere, especially in areas where standard taxis are hard to find like small towns and coastal towns. Being relatively affordable, unregulated and super flexible for pillion passengers’ needs in the midst of heavy traffic, boda-bodas gained prominence the same way matatus did (more on this soon).

Motorcycle taxi, under the brand Gojek, in Indonesia.
Besides Kenya, motorcycle taxis are also a common sight in Indonesia.
Image Source: Afif Kusuma

Tuk-tuk

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of auto-rickshaws or tuk-tuks in parts of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and even the Iberian Peninsula. *raising mine* For those whose hands stayed down, tuk-tuks look like mini 3-wheeled, no-door taxis. It turns out that this cute type of mini taxi exists in several parts of Kenya including Malindi and Nairobi.

Auto-rickshaws or tuk tuks in Miradouro Santa Luzia, Lisbon, Portugal.
Auto-rickshaws in Lisbon, Portugal.
Image Source: Alex Paganelli

Matatu

Finally, here’s the local superstar: The matatu. The name “Matatu” is derived from a Kikuyu word, mang’otore matatu. It translates to “3 cents”, which was the standard fare for most matatu trips when matatus debuted. The matatu is another type of shared taxi but in the form of a minibus or van, most commonly white Nissan minibuses (which is why they’re a.k.a. “Nissans”) with a board showing the destination. To the delight of ride-pimping enthusiasts, it is also common to see pimped matatus.

I’m delighted to see this matatu. :)
Image Source: My writer Samuel shared this image with me. I think he got it from Vlog Star.

Each matatu has 2 workers on duty: a driver and a tout. The tout is basically a conductor in charge of fare payments, passengers and the vehicle’s condition. A local would categorise the touts as organised and unorganised. The organised touts are usually said to be older and more respectful while the unorganised touts are usually younger and less respectful.

The significance of Matatu despite its downsides

Matatus started operating before independence in the mid-1950s. They came into operation due to a lack of public transport in areas around Eastlands, a result of colonial restrictions. After independence in 1963, there was significant growth, especially in Nairobi. This growth led to rural-urban migration and therefore increased demand.”

Gladys Moraa Marie Nyachieo of Kenyatta University explained how matatus emerged before independence and grew prominent since then.

With all the drama surrounding publicly-run passenger transport systems (bus and train in particular), it’s little to no wonder that people in Kenya are significantly more reliant on the matatu network. Paratransit is characterised by flexibility and responsiveness to demands sparked by daily, seasonal and even long-term changes in mobility patterns and transport competition.

That could explain why the matatus remain relevant to Kenyan society in ways the Kenya Bus Service (KBS) allegedly failed to. Plus, the usual phenomenon in our world is that every industry that has emerged creates jobs and the matatu system is no different.

However, as with any trade-off, it is also blamed for many problems including cartels, overcrowding, road congestion (thanks to poor road design), long queues, forgoing schedules, fluctuating fares, poor working conditions, harassment from the authorities, unhealthy competition, lack of vehicle design standards, reckless drivers, unpredictability in stops and routes, failed policy interventions and even viral-worthy chaos. And the touts would have more to lose from the Transport Ministry’s plan to digitalise the fare payment system, especially since they’re the fare collectors.

A matatu, or mini bus at Narok, on the Nairobi to Mombasa route. These matatus provide an extensive and cheap share taxi/ bus service all over Kenya. They are easily identifiable by their yellow band. Other mini buses and safari vehicles do not carry the yellow band. (Oct/ Nov 2010)
A matatu at Narok, west of Nairobi. Image Source: shankar s. Author’s note: Admittedly, it was also difficult to find an Unsplash photo of a matatu, so I had to look elsewhere for a Creative Commons 2.0-licensed photo of a matatu.

Speaking of failed policies, Ahmad Kanyama of the University of Dodoma wrote in his 2016 paper about the institutional bottlenecks on public transport planning coordination in Nairobi (and also Dar-es-Salaam). He reviewed several documents, conducted interviews with institutions involved in public transport and noted experiences shared at workshops, and then ran “a structural-functional and content analysis”.

From his analysis, he concluded that the bottlenecks are the lack of realistic planning schemes, poverty, lack of financial responsibility through all levels of government, resistance to change, lack of political support, corruption, lack of participation in planning, and lack of a regulatory framework. In fact, it was only in 1984 that the public service vehicle (PSV) license requirement for matatus came into enforcement.

The story behind the institutional bottlenecks includes Kenya’s shift from being centrally governed by the national government to delegating governance of counties to newly-formed county governments in the 2010s. Specifically, in 2013, Nairobi formed its own county government, which was led by Evans Kidero from 2013 to 2017 and then led by Mike Mbuvi Sonko. 

However, in February 2020, he passed the key functions of the Nairobi government to the national government after plots to impeach him. The national government then established the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), which oversees the county’s operations. Sadly, the national government’s introduction of NMS resulted in the following transport initiatives not going on as intended:

Can the matatu be data-driven?

Nairobi, Kenya
Of course, all our articles need to have a connection to data science, so Kenya’s matatu system is no exception.
Image Source: Joecalih

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) Africa worked with the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NaMATA) to gather and analyse matatu passenger movement data in Nairobi’s metropolitan area (obviously) in 2018 and 2019. The data was gathered via:

These data sets were then processed using ITDP’s travel demand model to determine what happens when there are changes in the public transport system like banning matatus from operating:

“By shifting transfer terminals further apart, the proposed matatu ban would increase the average walking time for passengers who transfer within the CBD from 15 to 31 minutes. The increased walk time would be particularly difficult for passengers traveling with children, persons with disabilities, and commuters carrying luggage.

Press reports have mentioned the prospect of shuttle buses to ferry passengers from one terminal to another—yet such services would lead to increased waiting time for the transfers and additional fares, among other inconveniences for passengers. It is also not clear who will provide the shuttle services.”

ITDP Africa on the consequences of a proposed matatu ban.

Another data-driven project by ITDP Africa was for driving decisions related to Nairobi’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan, just like the one mentioned in our public transport demand article.

Surveys from Kenya’s Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing Urban Development, and Public Works (MOTIHUD) via interviews and a GPS-enabled smartphone app provided data about frequency-occupancy counts, existing matatu demand, entries and exits, and multimodal transfers. With these data, the BRT’s routes, matatu services and relevant infrastructure can be planned more effectively with the passengers’ needs in mind.

Route optimisation considers the most Pareto-efficient solution. This is made possible by digitalisation of the transport sector, namely geo-enabled mobile data.
One of the aspects to improve in data-driven transport improvement is route optimisation.
Image Source: Tobias

But, being a German company, what really caught our eye is a study backed by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. This study pursued by Herman Kwoba and Christian Mettke of German development agency GIZ was about the digitalisation of Kenya’s transport sector.

Seeing that the smartphone ownership rate is reportedly high at roughly 60%, the tech hubs probably had an easier time pitching a wide variety of apps for e-hailing (motor vehicle, boda-boda and tuk-tuk), carpooling, delivery, cargo, trip planning and service provision to the Kenyan transport sector. Such apps, which might ring a bell for any Kenyan reading this, include (but are not limited to) Little Cab, Wasili, UberBODA, Twende and Ma3Route.

The same study also mentioned the Digital Matatus Project. The project charted a map of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area transport routes using mobile transport data-driven routing apps. This map can be referred to by transport beginners in the form of a PDF or straight from the web app to plan their journeys.

So, it’s safe to say that the answer to the question about making the matatu data-driven is yes. We can make the matatu data-driven. And as questioned at the beginning, does the unique transport landscape shaped by the matatu and other paratransit modes in Kenya influence public transport data analysis?

To some extent, it does in terms of size, scale and challenges, but the concepts of convenience, occupancy, punctuality, recurring delays, demand, entries, exits, transfers, and route optimisation remain applicable here.

Transport reforms

Nairobi, Kenya.
Author’s note: I just thought that inserting a nice view of the sun-kissed urban landscape of Nairobi will end this article about Kenya’s transport landscape on a positive note and remind us of the big picture here.
Image Source: Amani Nation

Luckily, some progress has been made through policy reforms. Kenya’s transport reforms include:

  • establishing the National Transport Safety Authority in 2012
  • adopting the Integrated National Transport Policy (INTP)
  • enacting the Traffic Amendment Act consisting of laws and penalties for traffic offences, also in 2012
  • enacting the requirement for paratransit operators, including matatus, to join savings and credit coops (SACCOs)
  • establishing the NaMATA to enforce transport policy in the Nairobi metropolitan area

It seems that such reforms are paying off. So far, according to a 2020 International Growth Centre (IGC) paper, the reforms to Kenya’s transport system have cemented understandable policy roles, regional policies that are on the same page and a long-term investment strategy.

Making the transport system data-driven helps a lot but attempts to do so will go to waste without a coordinated institutional framework. So here’s a recommendation from Ahmad Kanyama’s institutional bottlenecks study (which I also mentioned earlier): establish a framework for institutional coordination suited to the country’s circumstances, with good governance and leadership principles taking centre stage in the framework.

If I’m understanding this correctly, ensuring a coordinated institutional framework also requires a great understanding of the country and its transport landscape. So, maybe data analysis and institutional coordination can go hand in hand when it comes to systemic improvements, particularly in the case of optimising Kenya’s transport sector.