Whenever the matatu industry in Kenya comes to mind, chaos, extortion, disorganisation, harassment, noise and corruption and every possible negative adjective you may think of pops out of the mouth.
However, underneath this messy web is a huge ecosystem of youth eking out a living, women looking to feed their families, shoe shiners, newspaper vendors and even corporate organisations that use the matatu industry to push their agenda. On January 28, the government announced that Wednesday and Saturday would be set aside as car-free days in Nairobi to pave way for the piloting of the Bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
But this was suspended soon after. The National Government, which has made great strides in developing the road infrastructure seeks to have five major routes around the city and reduce the number of small seater matatus to 64 large capacity buses to manage the commute around Nairobi.
The routes which are named after Kenya’s Big Five are Ndovu (Kangemi to Imara), Simba (Bomas-Ruiru and Thika Superhighway), Chui (Njiru to Showground), Kifaru (Mama Lucy to T Mall) and Nyati (Balozi to Imara). The government also committed to having the BRT buses in Nairobi in early February. BRT is good news for the commuters, but where does that leave the workers and operators?
BRT implementation in Nairobi has largely focused on developing the infrastructure, with little focus on the socio-economic impact. The noble idea that would decongest the city and enhance transport efficiency has successfully taken off in major African cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos and Dar es Salaam, but seems to lag in Nairobi due to the complexity of the transport sector in Kenya.
The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) commissioned a report dubbed Nairobi Bus Rapid Transit Labor Impact Assessment which dissected the transport sector workforce and the potential hitches that could affect the integration of the BRT system in Kenya’s capital.
It took the efforts of Dave Spooner from the Global Labor Institute and Eric Manga, a researcher with the University of Nairobi to note that a lot had not been considered on the effects of the BRT on employment.
The industry which is the fourth largest employer in the country supports approximately 70,000 workers and complementary businesses (like shoe shiners). According to the report, should the BRT be implemented, 13,000 on board crew, 7,000 service workers, and more than 61 matatu routes, over 170 Saccos and 1,000 informal bus stops could be affected. BRT would only bring potentially 6,000 job opportunities.
With the high unemployment rate in Kenya, the youth turn to the industry to make a living as crew, callers, squad teams popularly known as kamagera, (that swing into action when the main crew is on a break). The report noted that 70 percent of those employed in the sector are vibrant lads and lasses under 40 years of age. They have some level of education with 60 per cent having completed secondary school and about 18 percent of them having attained college education. The number of women has also increased despite the myriad of risks ranging from the long working hours, the precarious nature of the job and the harassment and extortion from passengers, their counterparts and sometimes the law enforcement agencies.
At the end of the day, some, depending on what your task is, could go home with a paltry Sh500 a day. Let’s not delve into their economic demands at home for now. The owners of these matatus were highly faulted in the report for slowing down the BRT implementation because a capitalist system of setting targets for the drivers and workers is what generates revenue. Under the target system, a matatu owner would tell a driver to give him a specific amount of money at the end of the day.
For BRT to work, the owners need to become more innovative with the revenue model around BRT. They could come in to meet the last mile needs for commuters from the BRT final destination.
For instance, from the T-Mall terminus, the matatus could find revenue around the residential estates that were once unchartered. The government should create more incentive for youth seeking to feed off the industry to manage the oversupply of labor in the sector.
Emily Manjeru, communications consultant.