Industry on a roller coaster – are Saccos the savior?

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BY NBM WRITER

The Matatu Owners Association (MOA), whose offices are strategically located at Tumaini House, is the body under which more than 450 matatus from 44 of the 47 counties countrywide belong to. Their CEO, Mr John Macharia Githinji swivels on his chair as he, from a vantage point watches how some of the people (operators) whose rights he is championing for operate at the junction of Moi Avenue and City Hall Way, opposite the National Archives. It is also from this view that he watches as Nairobi County Government officials and traffic police marshal traffic and subsequently engage in some of the vices, like collecting bribes and victimizing his clients that is so rampant in the industry.

Once upon a time, a free industry characterized by mayhem, hiking of bus fares without an iota of care to passenger’s economic status, driving recklessly and loss of lives of innocent pedestrians and passengers, not to mention fellow drivers, the entry of MOA has to some extent bridged that gap between the industry and the Government by restoring some order for instance by introducing capping of fares on several routes. On Jogoo Road for example, Sacco members are required to charge a maximum fare of Sh80 during peak hours. This has helped passengers who were always exploited during rains peak hours where they would be charged as much as Sh150. The same kind of order and discipline have not been realized on routes like Langata Road and Ngong Road where a number of the matatus plying the route are not members of any Sacco and thus operate at their own behest.

MOA has empowered its members. Today, matatus like Umoinner that ply Umoja Estate to Nairobi CBD, Forward Travelers, Prestige Shuttle of Nakuru, 4 NTE Sacco, Nero Sacco from Embu just to mention a few have employed their drivers and touts. Previously, when the matatu crew never had any terms of employment, it was easy then for people of questionable character to be on the wheels and risk passenger lives through carelessness and drunk driving, as it was easy for them to disappear without trace in case of accidents.

The cashless payment system, a ‘designed’ failure
While the government hailed the cashless payment as what would make the Matatu industry sane and safe in that it would eliminate the carrying of large amounts of cash and that the monies collected by the system through taxes would be ploughed back by the government to streamline the industry, they failed to be honest with themselves and agree that public transport generally in Kenya is in the hands of private investors. The Kenyan industry is self-reliant and self-regulating. Any regulatory move by the government, to expose the industry to taxation and deny the players the choice to arbitrarily charge fares would always be sabotaged by the industry players and elements in government itself who benefit from this dubiety

The ticketing system would encompass a portable receipt printer, this would help track payments and aid in tax collection by agencies like the Kenya Revenue Authority, and they would also have the details of the vehicle route, car registration number and name of crew or supervisor who transacted the business during the trip.

The matatu industry is a performance-based system where the crew earn based on the number of trips they make and through the exploitation of commuters when they hike fares due to rush hours or bad weather like rain. This system would seal some of these loopholes as fares would now be fixed depending on distance and route and thus deprive the shareholders their free style of operation. They just had to oppose it.

Banks were to charge 5% commission on the uptake of the cashless platform and the card reader would retail at Sh10, 000, which the matatu operators deemed too high an initial cost for a gadget and technology that was new and had not been embraced by the industry.

There was also the unwillingness by the banks to share a platform for this cashless system. If, for instace, you were an Equity Bank cardholder and board a bus that uses a Diamond Trust Bank platform then you were unable to use this system. The banks feared that their rivals under this shared platform would eat into each other’s profit margins and the lack of uniformity that came about as different partners signed agreements with different players was a logistical nightmare.

The various cashless payment platforms that have been launched in Kenya so far include: Bebapay by Google in conjunction with Equity Bank; Metro Card by Pesaprint; Abiria Card by Kenya Bus; Safaricom’s My 1963 Card and Pamoja Limited by PSV operators in partnership with Diamond Trust Bank.

Traffic police officers and county askaris are notorious for collecting bribes from operators. Every morning when it’s peak hours, a traffic cop will carelessly board a matatu from any stage or even flag it to stop in the middle of a busy highway and force the passenger next to the driver to move, and from here he/she will solicit for a Sh200 bribe then alight. The same matatu will keep parting with several such similar amounts all day long.  Any operator who does not comply will be arrested and taken to a nearby police station where frivolous charges from touting to obstruction will be preferred on them.

Isn’t it interesting that it is mostly touts whom the police will always arrest? The simple fact is that the touts are the individuals who carry the money, and since the traffic police are keen on getting quick cash, it makes sense to arrest them and delay them knowing that out of frustration, they will easily cave in and part with a bribe.

While cases of attacks on passengers by thugs and the hijacking of matatus have been rare, it has been a headache to the operators. Just in the month of June this year, Embassava Sacco matatus were victim of a gang along Jogoo Road who boarded the bus and ended up robbing passengers. To help fight this occurrence, the MOA in conjunction with the matatu operators have encouraged the crew not to allow their matatus to be in motion with the doors open to help stop ‘strangers’ from boarding from risky locations.

They even tried to apportion liability to the crew whenever there occurred a robbery along the way but it only led to picketing by the crew and it never worked. The use of metal detectors on passengers before boarding never quite worked and the industry has continued to be tough to regulate.

To join an association like the MOA, a Sacco needs to ensure that their matatus are registered, licensed by NTSA, meet certain standards and pay annual fee of Sh15, 000.
If belonging to a Sacco can restore sanity by regulating and educating members and ensuring that the crew are not only employed but get better terms of employment like retirement benefits and health insurance, why shouldn’t the government make it policy that every matatu is a member of a genuine Sacco and not hide behind some false names and continue raking havoc on public roads?