The number of 14-seater matatus licensed more than doubled in 2017 compared to a year earlier even as the government expressed its intention to reduce low capacity vehicles in favour of bigger public service vehicles (PSVs).
This came after a January 2016 legal notice stopping licensing of 14-seater public transporters in favour of PSVs carrying 25 people and above was deferred to January 1, 2019.
The suspension was aimed at enabling matatu owners to invest in high capacity vehicles in a planned gradual phase-out of the 14-seaters.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) the number of PSV licences issued for 14-seater matatus increased by 109 per cent from 17,926 in 2016 to 37,382 in 2017, while the number of PSV licences issued to buses increased by 67.3 per cent from 7,210 in 2016 to 12,064 in 2017.
“For the last one and half years, investors have been buying the 18-seaters matatus commonly known as ‘box’ which has better returns compared to mini buses," says Association of Matatu Operators spokesperson John Methu.
“A box matatu goes for about Sh2.8 million to Sh3.2 million and has a low insurance coverage. Besides, it will earn you about Sh7,000 per day while the 33 seaters which will cost you Sh5-5.6 million will earn you between Sh8000-9000 in a day. A 14-seater costs about Sh2.4 million.”
According to Nicodemus Gatoho, chairman of one of the operating saccos on the Thika–Nairobi route, the group invested heavily in the 18-seaters because they are more comfortable and have a wider wheel base, which makes them more comfortable than 14-seaters.
“Passengers don’t like the 33-seaters because they’re uncomfortable and relatively slow. Besides, these buses have a lot of mechanical problems and the fare relatively low, hence lower returns," Mr Gatoho said.
The move to phase out PSV with carrying capacity of less than 25 is critical to thousands of investors who need time to repay loans.
Moreover, commuters could face yet another transport crisis if this order is implemented since 14-seater matatus account for 69.6 per cent of all PSV licences issued in 2017.
Interestingly, the KNBS data shows that PSV licences issued to mini buses almost halved from 8,213 in 2016 to 4,246 in 2017.
The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) dismissed claims of a wholesale ban on 14-seater matatus saying only 14-seater commuter PSVs operating within Nairobi would be affected.
On December 7, Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia indicated that reliance on low-capacity matatus is not sustainable and linked it to the congestion and disorder rife in major urban areas such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru and Kisumu.
Three-wheelers, popularly known as tuk tuk, have also had a strong ride in the decade to last year.
The KNBS data showed that registration of three wheelers jumped 603 per cent to 5,167 units in 2017 compared to 735 units in 2007.
One of the reasons for their rising numbers has to do with their prices of between Sh390,000 and Sh400,000.
They also fill up with passengers faster than matatus of buses and will earn the owner at least Sh1,500 daily.