Matatu touts and the untapped training ground

Every day, a crew must have a strategy that is not only clinically executed so as to meet their daily targets but that is also implemented within the cutthroat nature of the industry where it is only the resilient that survive. Once in a while, the matatu will be arrested or it will break down. Such is life, and surviving such setbacks builds a reservoir of emotional fortitude to face life’s challenges.

James Njau helps disabled passengers board his matatu


They can be a nuisance but we all agree that matatu crew especially in Nairobi are indispensable. I am vertically endowed so every time I board a matatu, I always prefer to take the front seat. The extrovert in me will find a way of initiating a discussion with the driver, which they often appreciate just to cheer them up. I have mined information on matatu industry in this way. My conclusion has been; if you are not crafty, do not venture and invest in the matatu industry because it is owned and run by ‘thugs’.

That aside, touts have fascinated and annoyed me in equal measure. The Nairobi born tout is most likely a school dropout while a new immigrant from rural Kenya is likely to be secondary school graduate. There is no big difference between the two except in the type of matatu they will prefer to operate. The informal street lingo in Nairob, sheng’ was born in the residential areas of Nairobi Eastlands but matatu crews breed and propagate it across the city.

Another thing that is obvious is the relative young age of matatu crew. It is the type of job that runs on young blood. Old dogs have nothing in it because experience does not count much. I leaned that some of them grow to become drivers or route managers. Those who fail to transition upwards, fall off into other informal sectors in the city by attrition. When it comes to fashion and new trends, I can bet you will see it with touts from some specific routes in Nairobi first before it shows up in up-market Nairobi

If you look beyond the bravado, curt responses and a carefree attitude in the matatu industry you will see an environment that can be a boot camp for drivers of our informal sector. A tout must wake up as early as 4:00am for two trips ferrying the early birds before rush hour. After the rush hour he takes a break for breakfast as a caretaker crew goes for a ‘squad’. He will close work as late as midnight on some days exhausted to the bone. If only touts could carry this habit of waking up early throughout his adult life, no one wakes up at dawn everyday and works hard through the day and fails to make some fortune in life. 

If there is a job that requires patience then it is matatu industry. This sounds ironic because matatus are responsible for the disorder on our roads. Rush hour is the only time when touts don’t need to call out for passengers. This accounts for only five hours in the sixteen hour a day industry. The remaining eleven hours, touts endure long durations of shouting to beat each other to the trickling number of commuters. Filling up a matatu can take at least one hour or more. Show me anything in life that does not need patience and I will show you an honest artisan.

Snap decisions. Touts and drivers must make many decisions out of the gut with very little information and time to analyze or consult. They have to evade traffic policemen, informal gangs who run most of matatu routes as well as beating other matatus by taking short cuts. This is one trait that comes in handy in life, as research has shown that taking much time to make a decision does not guarantee a sound one. Many times, life does not give you the luxury of time to decide on what to do.

An unknown sage said that if you want to go far walk with other people. No matatu tout can operate as a lone ranger. He will need someone to relieve him when he needs to take a rest. He will need people along the route to share intelligence on police crackdown, when a certain matatu left the stage, on traffic flow along the route and so on. One must work with traffic police officers as well because if a cop insists on arresting a matatu, he can never miss a reason to. There is nothing great in life that will be done by someone without the input of other people.

The other very crucial element of matatu industry is financial discipline. One take out is having clear financial goals. The owner of a matatu always gives his crew a target depending on the size of the matatu and route. At the end of the day, the fuel tank must be full; crew paid themselves their daily allowance and then the daily target to the matatu owner handed over. Any cash up and above the stipulated figures is left with the crew. This makes matatu crews to first work at raising their employer’s money, then save for fuel before leaving the balance to themselves.

Another aspect of matatu industry is the trickling in of money. The twenty shillings and fifty shillings that each commuter pays go to build up to at least Sh15, 000 per day for the costs mentioned above. Matatu industry is a good place to learn that wealth grows by adding small bits into it and not a one-day windfall. A very crucial lesson in life because touts are paid per day an amount that is higher than what many people earn in Kenya per month. If they apply this lesson then they can make a fortune from their job. 

Every day, a crew must have a strategy that is clinically executed so as to meet their daily targets. This strategy will be implemented within the cutthroat nature of the industry where it is only the fittest that survive. Once in a while, the matatu will be arrested or it will break down. Such is life and surviving such setbacks builds a reservoir of emotional fortitude to face life’s challenges. This is the time when a tout will survive on squads in other matatus.

These are all traits that are necessary for success in any venture in life. If touts can master themselves then master their art, when the time comes to leave the trade to younger blood they will walk away smiling ready for any challenge in life. The matatu industry can be a good training ground. The only setback is, the madness in there can never allow for order born out of structures. I have spoken to several drivers who told me they own matatus in less lucrative routes. Those who are focused actually make a fortune out of it.