Nairobi’s matatu disruption bid hits new roadblock in bus ride-hailing ban

Ideas & Debate

Nairobi’s matatu disruption bid hits new roadblock in bus ride-hailing ban

A passenger boards a Little Shuttles bus in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Mary Kibe, a regular customer of the bus ride-hailing service SWVL, is frustrated at the realisation that she has to resume using the ordinary Nairobi matatus after the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) on Monday suspended the app-based shuttles from operating on Nairobi roads.

“Ooh, I can’t believe that now I have to go back to taking the unruly matatus again — one to town and then another to Zimmerman. Having to wait in those downtown queues and then scramble to get onto the bus…such an inconvenience and waste of time,” said Ms Kibe, who has been taking the SWVL shuttles on the Westlands-Thika route.

SWVL, founded by Egyptian Mostafa Kandil and which has been on the Nairobi roads since the start of this year, was one of the two app-based bus ride-hailing services affected by the NTSA ban.

The other one was Little Shuttle, which started operations in February.


The app-operated shuttles had become popular with a sizeable number of the city’s digital-savvy commuters because they plied routes by-passing the city centre to avoid rush hour traffic, offered relatively more comfortable rides than the regular public service vehicles, known as matatus, and better organised commute.

Little Shuttle buses have plying the Kahawa Sukari to Westlands, Bomas to the CBD via Upper Hill, and Kinoo to South B routes, and planned expansion to other parts of the city.

SWVL shuttles have been plying CBD via Westlands to Kikuyu, CBD to SGR, CBD to Thika Road and Eastern Bypass to Tatu City and back.

The shuttles also made fewer stops, charged standard fares and allowed riders to book a seat and board at specific times on week days, with a frequency of every two hours.

“With the app all you needed to do was indicate your pick-up point, select the time of pick-up and destination, and wait at the designated station to catch the shuttle. You could track your shuttle on your handset. But what I loved most about them is how clean they were, no loud music was played, and the driver was always very courteous. The fare was standard, at Sh200, but I often ended up paying Sh50 or getting free rides due to offers by the company,” Ms Kibe said.

The NTSA on Monday accused the app-based shuttles of operating public transport services illegally and that they would remain suspended until they get the proper licences or seek exemption.

The two firms, he said, were operating commuter services using a licence for private tours service, violating public transport regulations.

“The companies are illegally operating shuttle services without the required PSV licenses. They have never applied for the PSV licence to operate on Kenyan roads picking up and dropping off paying customers,” said NTSA director-general Francis Meja.

“The vehicles under these hailing app companies have acquired Tours Service Licence (TSL) but are engaging in commuter service within Nairobi therefore contravening the terms of the TSL. If they want to operate a PSV business and charge fare from passengers let them apply for the correct licences and we shall reinstate their operations. Let them just follow the law so that we can facilitate them to do business in Kenya… It’s a fact that you cannot do business in Kenya without a proper licence.”

The PSV permit requirements include being a member of a sacco, hiring regular staff, including mechanics, and fixed routes.

“Right now we do not even know who their drivers are, which is illegal,” said Meja in a phone interview yesterday.

But Little CEO Kamal Budhabhatti suggested that there was more than meets the eye in the NTSA ban.

“The shuttles we hail are from our partners who are properly licensed, but we’re told that it is not the right kind of licence,” he said in a statement on Monday. “I am not sure whether the decision to stop us was from the authorities or they were under pressure from the public transport cartels.”

Mr Budhabhatti said the point-to-point shuttles are efficient and can be tracked.

“I would have appreciated that they open dialogue with technology companies like us on how to work together and change the face of public transportation in our country. Our shuttles services are so popular that most of the time they are fully booked,”he said.

“We have been running these services for the last three quarters, and we have proved that public transport can be operated in efficient and profitable manner that can bring sanity in the chaotic public transport. Over several months, we have learnt a lot. We have made changes to our technology so that it works as expected. We have been able to come up with the right ingredients to address the problem at hand. And I just hope that these efforts do not go in vain.”

SWVL Kenya general manager Shivachi Muleji said the firm was opening to discussing compliance with the authorities.

“We have been engaging with the government and are still in the process. There have been a few milestones and we are happy with the progress. We’ll remain committed to ensuring that we build a business that’s fully compliant.”

Besides the setback to commuters who preferred the bus ride-hailing services to the regular matatus and the operators locked out of business, the NTSA ban is significant because it marks the latest failed attempt to reform or disrupt Nairobi’s notoriously chaotic public transport.

An attempt to digitise all commuter payments in which matatus would have adopted a cashless payment system, first mooted in 2013, failed before it even started off.

Commuters would have paid fares using electronic payments systems provided by Safaricom’s M-Pesa, Equity, KCB and Family Bank, Mastercard and enabled by Google.

Transport operators or drivers of PSVs were initially given until July 2014 to comply or face sanctions by the NTSA, including a fine of Sh50,000, imprisonment for one year or withdrawal of licences.

In 2018, a push by the Matatu Owners Association (MOA) for the return of the cashless payments system to rein in corruption also hit a brick wall.

Another recent solution, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) planned for piloting in Nairobi beginning February has been fraught with setbacks right from the start.

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