An investment, cartel and a heritage – the Matatu industry



Investment is a key component of Kenyans’ varied ways of seeking wealth. While a number trade at the bourse, others invest in property whose returns have been great but are now plummeting.

If you purchased a house worth, say, Sh20 million, the monthly rent you could fetch, depending with the location, ranges from Sh30 000 to Sh70000. So, look at it this way, how would you love to bank an average Sh16, 000 daily, Sh480, 000 monthly and Sh5.76m every year for the next couple of years on a one-off investment of about Sh5m on a 33-seater minibus? This is not a pyramid scheme. No fuel, no salaries. These expenses are met daily by the matatu crew, leaving the proprietor only with the periodical maintenance costs.

New York City is famous for their yellow taxis, Bangkok for their tuk tuks and Nairobi is the home to the 33-seater mini-buses or as commonly known, ‘Nganya’  aka Matatu, complete with state of the art entertainment systems that include plasma television sets at the back of each seat, a 48 inch television screen, Dolby digital music system, free Wi-Fi, water and refreshment dispensers, alloy rims and artistic displays of graffiti – welcome to Nairobi.

You may hate them for the careless manner in which they are driven or for the loud blaring music they play or the tout may have over-charged you for a trip, but nothing exemplifies the young hip hop culture than these arts in motion. Hollywood celebrities like Trey Songz have ensured that they board and experience this culture. Ongata Rongai route Matatu christened Phantom 808 is rumoured to have interested a Saudi Sheikh who wants to purchase it, the matatu itself cost a whopping 8 million to customize and was the winner of the 2016 edition of the Nganya Awards, an award where commuters vote via sms for a Matatu that is best in offering excellent customer service, comfort, compliance to traffic rules and a positive Matatu culture.

‘… You see a car, I see art’
-Brian Wanyama of, a movement that preserves and educates the world on Nairobi’s Matatu culture

It is a quarter past noon on a Saturday when I choose to board one just behind the Kenya National Archives. I take a sit next to the driver as one of the touts comes to tell him to play a certain mix tape from a certain famous local disc jockey. In less than seven minutes the 33-seater is full and we maze around the traffic before we are on the busy Mombasa road. The driver, Nick, as he later informs me, is ready for a chat, he has been on the wheels for two years now and life he admits is okay because the job has sustained him and his wife alongside their three-year old daughter whom he mentions fondly. He informs me that they have already given the Matatu owner his daily income of Sh14, 000. Yes, before midday on a weekend when they are charging a regular flat rate of Sh50 instead of the usual Sh80 they charge on weekdays especially during peak hours, they have paid the owner and the rest of the money they make will be divided as follows: Sh6 000 for re-fuelling at close of business mostly at 11:00pm; Sh1 500 for the stage fee in town owned by their respective Sacco; Sh1 000 for their Sacco; then they have to pay themselves (driver and tout). He confesses that he makes at least Sh3 000 daily and the tout, Sh3 500 or above,

In short, by close of day, the matatu I have boarded will have made Sh29, 000, which is accounted for by the above break down. However, there are other amounts of money, which will have been gotten but are not include here. For example, when we leave the Nairobi CBD stage, the tout parts with Sh50 to other touts who helped him fill the Matatu. Such similar amounts are parted with at every stage that he will stop to pick passengers. If he stops along Mombasa Road or Jogoo Road and pick 5 passengers who pay Sh30 to their destination, he gives Sh30 to the tout at the stage who helped him. There is also the squad, this is when the driver gives the vehicle to another driver for a trip or two to town just so that he may take a rest, but also so that their undesignated colleagues may also make a few shillings and not be idle. “The matatu industry is all about being your brother’s keeper,” he proudly offers.

How the industry works

With the government not directly involved in the running of public transport, private investors have largely taken over the industry and so there is a lot of secrecy within, explaining the fear and lies about the industry. A number of the proprietors are very influential individuals, top police officers and politicians and since the crew know this, they misuse this to occasionally flout traffic rules.

By close of day, the matatu will have made Sh29, 000 – Sh14, 00, the owner; Sh6, 000, refueling; Sh1,500, stage fee in CBD; Sh1, 000, Sacco; Sh3, 000, driver and Sh3, 500, the conductor.

A brand new 33-seater NQR Isuzu costs between Sh4m and Sh5m inclusive of VAT. Thereafter, the vehicle is taken to Industrial Area in Nairobi where it is customised – graffiti, music, and lighting. This costs another Sh3m or thereabout. Famous matatu fabricators include Moha Graphics, Choda Fabricators and Lithium whose logos you will never miss on the vehicles they have worked on. Here the vehicle is given to artists who express their ideas according to the taste of the customer. It could be a famous political figure, an athlete or musician. They are decorated, music fitted and the vehicle chassis and body is modified to make it tough for the road and to accommodate the expensive state of the art entertainment (plasma TVs on each seat, music system) equipment that will be installed. Once ready the vehicle moves to the traffic police department for inspection and finally joins a Sacco of choice depending on the route. It is now good to go.

Depending on the Sacco, each matatu has a specific stage in the Nairobi Central Business District where they will pick and drop passengers whenever they are in town. Here, they pay the Nairobi County government a monthly parking fee of Sh3000. The proprietor now surrenders his vehicle to the Sacco of his choice. All he does is have, on recommendation, a driver and tout for his matatu who will be responsible for giving him his daily income. This income is highly dependent on how new and pimped his vehicle is normally ranging from Sh12 000 daily to as much as Sh19 000 on routes like Ongata Rongai. The PSV license the matatu acquires legally binds them to a specific route and violation of this is a punishable traffic offence.

The gangs, cartels and unwritten rules of the industry

While Nairobi remains a city that houses criminal gangs just like any other world city, a blanket connection of these gangs has been to link them with the matatu industry, while depending on whom you listen to, the existence of the gangs plays an interesting role in the industry. Every matatu stage is owned by a tribal gang, mainly the Kikuyu, Gusii and Luo. They are not necessarily criminals but individuals who protect the ‘interests’ of the matatus at these various stages. They collect an amount of money commensurate to the bus fare charged by the Matatu at that stage when the matatu picks up passengers at any particular moment during the day, they determine the fares especially during peak hours and they act as an eye, deterring Matatus from plying routes that they do not belong to. This helps in eliminating unfair competition and to maintain order. For example a Jogoo Road designated Matatu cannot just use Mombasa Road to pick passengers without parting with some money with the gang.

The matatus have supervisors along various routes, they are employed by the Matatu Sacco and their duty is to observe that the Public Service Vehicles (PSV) in their Saccos do not flout traffic regulations like carrying excess passengers, their crew are in uniform and that there is general order by following the correct route the matatu is assigned.
The supervisors also help inform the matatu crew in case there is a police or NTSA crack down and how they can avoid the route and also avoid a road with bad traffic flow. It is such kind of unregulated yet time saving ingenuity that makes Matatus a darling to many Nairobians.

A culture of quicksand money and flamboyance

You have to be at Afya Center at night to see for yourself, or just on any major highway to see how artistic these matatus are. The objective is to be the most beautiful and creative bus in the city complete with graffiti, alloy rims and the loudest music.  To many, they are discotheques on wheels and whether it is early morning or late at night the entertainment is there, with silver chains over the weekend hanging round the crew’s necks when their dress codes is usually relaxed.

These touts are the darlings to ladies, from college girls to married women. Their flamboyance and sense of fashion is a big bonus to ladies. The girls love and adore them. There are ladies who book in advance and once the matatu is in town, they just walk into their reserved seats as others scramble. Is it the free rides, the flamboyance or just to be associated with these touts who have cash to burn on the fun-loving ladies – you be the judge. But one thing is for sure, if your daughter or even wife has a favourite Matatu, then be careful. The touts themselves are very clear, they do not go after the ladies but are just victims of their sense of style and fashion.

When you take a seat, all passengers are nodding their heads to the latest music and scrolling on their smart phones enjoying the free WI-FI courtesy of internet providers who engage the matatus to ensure their services are accessed in the PSV, football lovers are not left behind either, as some come complete with Dstv or football live streams. You do not have to miss your favourite team play, you just sit back, relax and enjoy Arsenal play Chelsea in the FA Cup finals and tweet the updates for free. On some routes, free mineral water and candy is handed to passengers all in the name of customer service and trying to outdo the available competition.

On average a matatu tout makes Sh2000 daily. With most being young, they spend the cash on luxuries and entertaining their many female admirers. Lately, however, Saccos have come up to help the young men by making it policy for crew to save either weekly or daily within their respective Saccos or even purchase shares. Many of the touts would live in single rooms despite earning on average Sh45, 000 monthly, a number of them had no houses and would put up with friends, thanks to the carefree mentality in knowledge that there will be more cash tomorrow.

Is it a worthy investment?

Of course yes for an investor who loves a good cash flow but with caveats. A Matatu investor who buys a brand new 33-seater bus and invests well in pimping it up is able to recoup his investment in 2 years’ time. In a span of five years, Matatu owners I talked to confess, you can have three buses on the road with two of them having fully paid for themselves and even purchased the third in cash.

The secret to this success is to keenly monitor and service your vehicle, treat your crew well and place a realistic demand on them plus make sure you have a qualified and trusted mechanic to handle your car. Ensuring that your car is road worthy is key but most intriguing is to ‘know how to live’ within the Matatu society. This involves being open to paying bribes to senior police officers so that whenever your vehicle is in problems you can easily navigate your way. Joining a Sacco too helps in the collective defending of the rights of the owners, and helping members get preferential treatment like loading passengers from designated Nairobi CBD stages on first priority basis.

While it is the role of the government to protect her citizens from exploitation of any kind, her efforts to bring in the long transit buses seems to be a poorly thought out move. In fact a few of the City Shuttle buses with a capacity of 90+ passengers are rumoured to be relocating to Mombasa to aid in moving travelers from Mombasa Central Business District to the Standard Gauge Railway station in Miritini. The biggest challenge the buses that have been on test operation in the city have met is that the road network and width does not favour them. Negotiating the roundabout is a nightmare and the potholes and road rugged terrain have put a strain on the buses’ bodies. While we wait to see whether the new road lanes to accommodate the long buses will come to pass, the 33-seater matatus will remain Nairobi’s main mode of transport and both the central and county governments need to seriously consider this industry as a major employer of youth and preserve an identity that they give to the city of Nairobi.

Argument on immoral music and graffiti is something the ministry of transport, the traffic police, the NTSA and the Kenya Film Classification Board together with the industry stakeholders should all come to the table to chart a way forward. It is also clear that a majority of the offences that the operators are charged with are not in law, but malicious claims to extort them.

While we seek to maintain order in the industry, it will be fair to have existing laws and defined punishment to the culprits but one thing is for sure, to preserve the positive culture of the Matatu industry is something that we must strive to achieve for Nairobi to maintain her identity.