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There are two things that are certain in this life. Three if you happen to be in the Nairobi CBD at rush hour: death, taxes, and long queues of commuters waiting in line to board a matatu that will take them home.

The famous Michuki rules of 2004 streamlined the public transport industry, requiring matatus to be registered under Savings and Credit Co-operatives (SACCOs) as a way of increasing accountability in the sector. The growth of one such SACCO has disrupted the matatu industry over the past decade through price competition and customer satisfaction. That SACCO is Super Metro, a transport company that started ferrying commuters from Nairobi to Kikuyu and Juja and now has over 500 registered buses.

The Swvl story     

To fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kenyan public transport sector and how the growth of Super Metro during this period is significant, we need to look into the story of Swvl, which shut down most of its operations in Kenya in 2022. Swvl is a Dubai-based company that offers ride — hailing services with a focus on mass transit. The Swvl mobile app gave the price, time and nearest pick-up point for a trip within Nairobi or to other major towns like Nakuru and Eldoret. Swvl had a growing customer base that enjoyed reduced commuter fares and the convenience of having pick-up and drop-off points close by. 

Already operational in 13 countries globally, Swvl launched in Kenya in 2019 with the aim of disrupting public transportation in the country. The company would lease vehicles at a daily rate and take home any extra amount the vehicle made. Despite being valued at US$150 million, Swvl ceased their inter — and intra — city operations in Kenya in 2022, maintaining only their corporate offer, a decision motivated by the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, in the same year, Super Metro announced the launch of six new routes, proving that they had a better understanding of the Kenyan public transportation sector and could innovate accordingly. So how is it that while most matatu SACCOs were trying to recover from the downturn brought on by the pandemic lockdowns these guys were able to expand and create more jobs?

Super Metro business model

Super Metro started operations a decade ago and has quickly replicated what was working in other SACCOs. The company has been able to build on the dominance they currently enjoy by ensuring customer satisfaction and venturing into new routes.

The SACCO mainly operates on routes that are considered the “bedroom of Nairobi County”,      serving passengers who commute to the central business district or the larger Nairobi County for work daily but live in neighbouring counties such as Kiambu and Kajiado where housing — and the cost of living generally – is more affordable than within the city. Private options like using Uber or owning a car like their colleagues who live in estates within the city is simply not viable for them because of the distance of the commute. They don’t mind waiting in line for over an hour if they are guaranteed that they will get a seat in a clean matatu, the music will not be too loud, the staff is respectful, and safety and security on the road are guaranteed. While commuters living in Kitengela, Ngong, Syokimau and other such places may experience price hikes due to traffic snarl—ups, or wait a long time as matatus remain stuck in traffic, Super Metro      has enough vehicles on its rotation, which enables the company to offer a competitive price and assure passengers waiting in line that they will eventually get a seat.

Investors or matatu owners who register with Super Metro enjoy a steady income since the brand is now established and there are few costs after the initial set up. A huge headache that is taken off the investor is that Super Metro manages the employment of the bus conductors and drivers. A prospective conductor or driver is interviewed by the Super Metro team and if successful, is paired with an investor. The investor and the driver-conductor duo agree on work shifts and payments and the investor has only to keep up with SACCO contributions and local government fees. 

There is no need for extra marketing on the part of the investor since there are always passengers waiting at the stage. While some matatus are popular because of the design on the bodies of the vehicles, the interior finishing, the colours or other features that stand out especially to fans of the matatu culture, those who invest in Super Metro and other similar matatu SACCOs rely heavily on brand loyalty. Courier services are an additional income stream; goods can be delivered within the hour to towns in counties neighbouring Nairobi for as little as one hundred shillings. As such, investors are able to make enough money within a short span of time to finance the purchase of other matatus as the SACCO maintains market dominance. Comedian Timothy Kimani, popularly known as Njugush, and his wife Celestine Ndinda became the newest investors      to buy a matatu and register with Super Metro, an indication that more Kenyans are venturing into the matatu business. 

With this takeover of the industry, one is curious to know which matatu routes Super Metro will expand into next. Judging by what they have done so far, they will probably expand into a route that doesn’t have a major SACCO operating on it or one that has room for competition, a route likely to be connecting Kiambu, Machakos and Kajiado Counties to Nairobi County, or one that connects people from these counties to a place like Westlands. The routes that go directly to Westlands from say Juja or Malaa are a particularly good choice because customers do not      have to take  two matatus to get to work or to their businesses. So we might see a Kikuyu to Ngong or Juja route as well depending on demand. Limuru to and from Nairobi CBD is a good contender and looks like a better route than Rongai — Nairobi as the traffic situation on Magadi Road may not be attractive to investors considering that a large section of it borders the Nairobi National Park; matatu owners make money on a route with many stops where one seat is paid for by multiple passengers.

The opening of the Green Park Terminus in Upper Hill would have disrupted the transport system in Nairobi. However, the current governor plans to abandon the project altogether and to instead      convert the space into a conference centre. Test runs show that, instead of decongesting the city, the park would actually have made navigation worse. It was foreseen that the park would have amenities that would have been very useful for travellers and now that the idea is to be shelved,     catering for passenger comfort is something SACCOs could plan to take on.     

Kamageras face a bleak future

When Super Metro opens a new route, two events follow: free rides on the first day and protests by the other SACCOs already operating on the route; they demonstrate against this new entrant because they know the competition will be stiff. Many of these SACCOS belong to small business owners who, unlike the large companies, cannot afford to regularise the fares they charge and who often need to hike prices whenever there are changes in oil prices or taxes in order to break even.          

And as more SACCOs adopt this new marketing strategy where a group of matatus share a brand, the job most at risk in the industry – and which doesn’t even exist in the Super Metro organizational structure – is that of the kamang’era, more commonly known as kamagera.     

The job of the kamagera is to help the conductor fill the matatu with passengers at the stage – mostly outside the city centre, in Nairobi’s suburbs. The kamagera stands at the stage and at the approach of a matatu, touts it to potential customers, shouting the price and destination or route. When the matatu is ready to leave, the kamagera receives his cut from the conductor depending on the number of people that have boarded the vehicle. Kamageras are usually not attached to any matatu or SACCO since their business is simply to broker passengers. They can be unpleasant to the conductor when disagreements over payment arise and to passengers who may feel harassed by a middleman when they already know where they are going and how much they can expect to pay for the trip. What is happening now is that passengers opting to wait for a Super Metro are rendering the kamagera redundant.

Kamageras can also double up as “squad”, meaning they can be hired as replacement conductors or drivers for the day if the regular “squad” is faced with an emergency — being arrested or any other reason. Tens of kamageras wait at the stages for a chance to make something small. The erasure of the kamagera as we know them means that this group of people will not be able to earn a living, however small. They are mostly the people who cannot get full — time or part-time work due to substance addiction, disability, or having a criminal record.

The third place     

In a way, the matatu stage can be considered as the third place for many. A place that is not home (first place) or work (second place) — a place where people can come to talk with one another, play and relax. 

Before the internet, this was the place to which you went to discover new songs as matatus were key in music distribution. Sheng as a language also owes its growth and evolution to matatus and to the matatu stage, and with the emergence of sheng came the evolution of the nganya culture as we know it today. At matatu stages across the country, and especially on weekends, you will find people standing around or sitting and engaging in leisurely conversation. They snack on pieces of sugarcane, roasted maize and boiled eggs, and laugh and talk and plan. It’s a public space that people feel comfortable to occupy.

The matatu or nganya culture is characterized by loud music, colourful pop culture references spray – painted on the walls, flashy lights, huge screens, the whole shebang. The conductors in these matatus wear flashy jewelry and speak fluent sheng. The culture is very popular in cities like Nairobi and Mombasa to the point where competitions are held and awards given for top graphic designs, best drivers and routes, among other categories.

Yet major transport companies like Super Metro are breaking with the nganya culture despite      its popularity, choosing instead to limit their branding design to three colours or less, generic cut—out stickers and economical lighting.

I spoke to Adam Yawe about the abandonment of the nganya culture by emerging matatu companies. Adam is a product designer and 3D artist whose recent work is inspired by the      makanga (sheng for conductor) as well as by how speakers in matatus are embedded into the vehicle’s walls, reminding him of the Egyptian scarab that inspires his line of jewellery. Adam’s work has been exhibited at the African Arts Trust and at The Love Studio. 

Nganya culture as we know it is unsustainable as a form of public transportation and I think that is what companies like Super Metro have capitalized on,” Adam says. According to Adam, the whole culture is a performance that is more for the makangas and drivers themselves, and for the people outside the matatu to see the spectacular lights, the graphic designs, and any extra paraphernalia that the vehicle might have like screens and the basketball rings hanging at the back. For the person who is actually paying to move from one place to another, the whole experience can be quite uncomfortable because you have to deal with three or more people hanging by the door, deafening music, and the price hike that comes with riding in a popular matatu.      

Adam also theorises that for most people living in urban areas, commuting by matatu might be viewed as a temporary solution, particularly for those living in towns where upward class mobility is an aspiration. One may believe that at some stage in life they will be able to afford a car or will be able to use taxis to get around so people are not attached to the idea of matatus as shaping their identity.          

Adam says that there is something meditative about being in a “boring” bus that people appreciate. Travelling in a bus that is relatively quiet, where the senses are not over-     stimulated, is a welcome reprieve for most. His work on matatu speakers, for example, was inspired by matatu rides to and from university where he noticed that the less flashy buses would protect the speakers in a way that was similar to how ancient Egyptians would mount the scarab      on their fingers, signifying that the speaker is a precious object. He took pictures of the speakers on his phone, rendered them and in one project, used the images to make kangas — coming full circle because the word makanga actually comes from askari kanga, the untrained local policemen in colonial Kenya who wore kanga (cotton) uniforms.

Since culture is organic, we might see the nganya culture become obsolete in the public transport space as more people prefer the more standard style that Super Metro has adopted. We might see the designs that are very prominent in the nganya culture take up space in the interior design of other spaces, like the barbershop shop in Umoja that looks like the inside of a matatu. Or we might have restaurants adopting this aesthetic. Since the story of nganyas is iconic, and there are probably curious tourists who have put riding in a matatu on their bucket list, the culture could be tapped into as an income stream in the tourism sector — city rides in matatus and maybe even a museum showcasing the culture.

It will be interesting to see how the innovation of this one company will affect other players in the matatu industry and the evolution of the nganya culture in the years to come.