How aging Mombasa PSVs withstand rivalry

A refurbished and brightly coloured, but old, matatu in Mombasa.
A refurbished and brightly coloured, but old, matatu in Mombasa. The public service vehicles continue to be in business despite their age. PHOTO | COURTESY 

The intriguing designs expertly painted on matatus as you enter the town, in the island tourist destination, can be easily mistaken for a giant art gallery. Ironically, their number plates tell a story of a wornout and overused vehicle. The plates do not match their physical look that portrays them as new, attractive and recently bought. So what really happens?

“We pimp these matatus to our customers liking,” said Peter Warui, one of the matatu owners in Mombasa.

He said most customers who board matatus are the youth who are attracted to nicely designed vehicle bodies and music that suit their liking.

The flashy coat of paint on the Public Service Vehicles (PSVs) makes them appealing. Some of the vehicles have abstract designs while others have the faces of celebrities, both international and local. Others opt for posters of common movies painted on the vehicles’ bodies.

“Our business is all about being appealing to our passengers, which means we have to upgrade our matatus with different designs frequently,” Mr Warui said.


But behind the appeal is the owners need to keep these vehicles on the roads, for as long as possible, given that the new rules introduced four years ago by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) barred the registration of newer 14 seater vehicles.

In Mshomoroni, within Mombasa County, a garage is occupied by five young men found at work whose main business is to make the matatus look as new as possible.

“When a matatu gets to the garage and is ready to be worked on, the owner of the matatu is initially given a variety of designs, or sometimes the client comes with a specific design he wants put on the vehicle’s body. We then discuss the colour and the price which all depends on the type of design selected and chosen by the client,” Mohammed Seif, owner of Starmotors, explains

“We first scrap off the old paint on the matatu; using an air brush we spray a white base coat, then spray the colour preferred by the owner, that is the top coat, then finally add graffiti design that the client has chosen,” Mr Seif explained.


Before the painting process begins an agreement has to be made between Mr Seif and the client on the colour, the theme and the price.

“I have to sit down and listen to what the customer wants mostly on the theme, photos and words then agree on the price.”

Behind the dirty, messy look at the garage lies a lucrative business for these graffiti artists who earn hundreds of thousands of shillings. Mr Seif charges a pretty penny for the body work which takes approximately 21 days to complete.

“If a client wants to have the body work of the matatu worked on then we charge them Sh100,000 and we work on it for three weeks,” he said.

For the interior of the matatu, he added, the clients pay Sh110,000 which entails replacement of the seats and the roof cover. The work of making the vehicles look glamourous does not end there; a music system is also installed in the vehicle at a cost of Sh60,000.

Owners of the matatus do general repair as well as pimp the old vehicles to keep up with the latest trends annually.

“General repair is done once or twice a year depending on the route the vehicle takes,” owner of Cashflow matatus, Mr Seif Mohamed Said.


“For major repairs we take out the whole shell of the car and replace it with a new one which we acquire from other areas outside of the coast like Eldoret town then we apply a fresh coat of paint with additional art of their choice,” Mr Said said.

A matatu conductor, Suleiman Kombo, who operates on Bamburi-Ferry route said he prefers a “new” looking matatu because they get to generate extra income apart from what the owner expects at the end of the day.

“We prefer having a pimped matatu because people don’t mind sitting uncomfortably when they are assured of getting to their destination earlier. That way I get extra cash on top of my daily salary because we take more trips than our employer anticipated,” Mr Kombo said.