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Saccos set to take over the multibillion shilling matatu industry

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By Ben Kinyanjui

Can you imagine waking up one day and there are no matatus on the road?  Nancy Maingi, a 27 year-old civil servant from one of the newly created districts in Eastern province cannot imagine life without them.

They been called all sort of names, play loud music and some had gone to an extent of showing pornographic videos, all in the name of attracting passengers and mainly the youth.


Maingi is one of the admirers and user of the 14 seater matatu that she has used all her adult life. She has never stepped into a bus and she has no intention of doing so unless there is no alternative.

In any case, buses ceased to operate from their rural Kenanie village in Machakos County long before she went to school.

“We have used these vehicles all this long. They have become part of our lives. I can’t imagine traveling in a crowded bus. They are slow, crowded and not flashy,” she says.

Maingi is not alone. Many Kenyans are not even aware that the Government has put in place a programme that will ensure the matatus that come in one size but different colours are gradually phased out.

The Transport Licensing Board (TLB) that is mandated to regulate the public transport industry is no longer licensing new 14 seater buses on the Kenyan roads.

Though the move that came into effect in January this year does not affect the already existing vehicles, there are now fewer vehicles on the road and more are likely to exit before the end of the year as some get grounded due to mechanical problems while others are involved in accidents.

The situation may worsen by the end of the year due to the slow rate of replacing the 14 seater with the higher capacity buses. Local vehicle assemblers such as the General Motors are overwhelmed by the demand for bigger buses.

“We are likely to face a crisis at the end of the year as the number of matatus continues to decline. The local assemblers are unable to meet the demand,” says Mr Albert Karakacha, a director of the Kenya Matatu Owners Association.

While he supported the government move to phase out the vans from the road, Karakacha faulted the programme saying most matatu saccos that have resolved to upgrade to the buses are not able to get them on time.

Some operators have also appealed for the reversal of the policy saying it was discriminating them as everybody had a right to invest in any way as long as it was within the law.

Others argue that the move is aimed at kicking out the poor from the multi-billion shilling industry as most cannot be able to buy and maintain the big buses and hand it to the rich.

Conservative figure says a 60 seater bus would cost in excess of Sh10 million compared to the Sh1 million used to purchase the second-hand 14- seater matatu that are also easy to maintain.

“The new traffic rules can rein the chaos being witnessed in the industry. And if the Government must implement the programme, they should start a pilot project within Nairobi,” says Mr James Kahiro, the chairman of the Nyeri-based 2NK Sacco and also an investor in the sector.

He argues that matatus are not to blame for the perennial congestion in the city but instead shifted blame to the private cars that not only cause traffic jams but have also turned the entire city into a parking lot.

“There is no congestion along the roads outside Nairobi. Let them create dropping bays in the outskirts of the city where we can drop our passengers to be ferried by the busses into the city centre,” he argues.

However, analysts believe road safety concerns and not congestion is what is driving the Government to consider an alternative mode of public transport away from the existing chaotic and inefficient system.

It is estimated that there are around 25,000 matatus operating in the country. In some areas like central and Eastern provinces, the 14-seater has long kicked out the buses from the transport business.

In February 2004 the Ministry of Transport introduced new regulations governing the operation of Matatus that included the compulsory fitting of safety belts and speed governors.

In addition, standing on matatus was banned. As a result of these regulations, many matatus were taken off the road, which caused great disruption to public transport, forcing many people to walk to work.

Once they resumed operations, sanity was restored but not for long after the then transport minister John Michuki was moved to the ministry of Internal Security.
The sector remained chaotic and the high death rate on the highways continued mainly due to poor enforcement and corruption that has permeated the traffic police department.

The Government has now ordered the operators to shift to larger capacity vehicles and organize them into savings and credit societies (Saccos) or form companies.

As a result, over 600 Saccos have been licenced, a move that is raising concerns at the ministry of Cooperative as most of them have no structures or ability to secure the buses.

The TLB that seems to be more concerned with road safety as opposed to mobilisation of savings had recommended two Saccos per route but this is now not the case.


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