BY DAVID OJILI
A ring of extortion exists on Kenyan roads and especially public transport. It starts from criminal gangs manning matatu terminals, to rogue traffic cops collecting bribes and turning a blind eye to public transport users flouting traffic offenses. This goes all the way to matatu saccos that are a law unto themselves. Insanity reigns as ordinary commuters bear the brunt in the form of road carnage, unregulated bus fares and unroadworthy vehicles. It is total madness
In the 2019 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Report, Kenya ranked 56 among the listed 190 economies. This ranking bases countries against each other on how the regulatory environment is conducive to business operations and also protection of property rights.
Ironically, the feat was celebrated by government mandarins yet, the sabotage, bureaucracy and harassment that new business ventures face in the country is monumental. A select group of people are hell-bent on maintaining the status quo and nothing depicts this more than the current woos Swvl is experiencing in Nairobi.
Swvl is a tech platform that offers matatu operators the opportunity to come to its platform with their National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) registered matatus and ferry passengers within Nairobi. Were originally, based in Cairo, Egypt, and with operations in five countries including Kenya. They operate buses along fixed routes and allow customers to reserve and pay for their rides using their app downloadable on Apple and Google play stores.
In the confusion of public transport, there are major beneficiaries; the rogue traffic police and matatu crew not to mention the criminal gangs manning terminals. As such, any order disrupts their comfort and they fight it using various methods.
For instance, along Jomo Kenyatta Avenue, there is a matatu terminal outside the General Post Office (GPO) building. Here, matatus drop and pick off passengers without police interference or even Nairobi City Council askaris raising a storm. Interestingly, any Swvl matatu that drops off passengers or picks them at that very spot is impounded, the pretense being obstruction of traffic. Never mind other public service buses will be at the same spot and a blind eye turned on them.
This has disrupted Swvl operations to a point that a concerned user kicked off a petition that as at November 26 had 2370 signatures. The goal was simple; compel the NTSA to come clear on why they were harassing Swvl vans and their operators. Which of their compliance requirements has Swvl not met? The petition illustrates just how Swvl had come to be embraced by numerous Nairobians who crave sanity in public transport.
In order not to suffocate innovation, it’s always wise to allow the market to lead policy. This helps to protect innovations from being stifled by stringent regulations, denying their maturity. Often times this can be achieved in a controlled environment like an incubator. Mobile money lending and specifically M-Pesa is a perfect example. Conversely, the capping of interest rate is an example of a situation where government let policy trail blaze market and the effects have been negative.
Nairobi’s population according to the 2019 National Population Census stands at 4,397,073 living within 696 square kilometers that the city occupies. The figures for Kenyans who make their way daily to the Nairobi CBD remain scanty but range into the millions. Road, commuter train, taxi, motorbike and walking are some of the means they use to move from one place to another.
The City is also famous for its matatu culture. 13 and 42 seater vans and buses respectively with graffiti and blaring music; most of these matatus despite operating under saccos remain a law unto themselves.
They stop and pick passengers at any point, they play loud music and their fares are not regulated. Rain and rush hours dictate fares and this denies commuters the ability to plan and budget for their income especially on fares due to this unpredictability.
How are tech companies different?
From the Swvl app, a commuter is able to pre-book a ride, at times even three days in advance. You know the cost, route, travel time and bus registration number for the trip. A few minutes before the bus arrives, you get a notification and in case you are not at the designated pick off point. The Swvl captain will call you although the waiting time is a maximum of two minutes after which the bus departs whether you are aboard or not.
This order is a major bonus for many working-class Nairobians. You don’t have to be anxious while working that matatu fares will be hiked due to sudden weather changes or at the whim of the matatu crew. In unfortunate event that your trip is cancelled, a refund is credited to your account and an apology text sent to your phone. The base fare for any trip is Sh200, often subsidized by the many promotions run by Swvl.
Starting next year, the company will revise the base fare as the promotions come to an end; this is so that the business model can be sustainable and profitable.
Efforts to reach the NTSA for comment bore no fruits as until the time of going to press, none of this writer’s questions via email had been acknowledged leave alone answered.
On their part, Swvl said that the NTSA had required them to partner with the following existing matatu operators; Express Prestige, Molo Classic, Metro Trans East Africa, Arbab Ventures and Rasasi Travelers.
Additionally, the public transport regulator had also required that the operators on Swvl platform have a Public Service Vehicle (PSV) and Road Service License (RSL) badges from their respective Saccos and that their vans must have an identifiable yellow band for buses under 18 seats.
Swvl, however, are not angels either. They have failed to establish themselves as the best alternative to the chaotic public system that is synonymous with the city public transport system and Kenya in general. Most of the drivers on its platform are just the regular undisciplined crews we are used to. It is not strange thus to see Swvl vans flout traffic rules by overlapping or even driving on sidewalks. A number of their drivers are also quite unkempt and mostly on phone during trips.
Whereas credit must be given in that they have a platform for dissatisfied commuters to lodge complaints, it would be better if they had measures or a code of conduct for their crew. After all, it is the Swvl brand that they work under.
A question to the government
Kenya has tried and failed miserably with regards to cashless payments in the public transport sector. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a traffic police officer revealed that the success of a cashless public transport sector is a recipe for a number of them being broke. The main aim of a Kenyan traffic police officer when they stop a PSV is always to fault-find, frustrate and get a bribe. If the driver does not handle cash, has no tout, has a specific route to use then how will they get something to ‘eat’?
This stinking admission and mentality is what characterizes our country’s public transport, as it becomes victim to a few rotten apples. It is why criminal and extortionist gangs manage matatu terminals. It is a racket that is deeply ingrained into the system and many just observe from a distance.
The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) loses so much revenue in this multi-billion industry due to lack of regulation. Swvl and any other player who wants to introduce sanity should be supported as this can help the taxman and even the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in their planning.
On its part, Swvl has directly employed some 40 staff at its Nairobi offices and more than 1000 drivers through its platform. It beats logic that any sane government would have the guts to fight such an idea whose time has come. Kenya does not suffer from a lack of creativity, but greed from a select few.