Matatus are the most common form of public transport in Kenya which comprises privately owned minibuses plying various routes to different parts of the country. The slogan ‘matatu’ translate to ‘three cents a ride’ which was the amount that was charged back in the 60s. Now, the price is much higher and is calculated per distance traveled and availability of the vehicles.
The matatu business in Kenya has become very common and many entrepreneurs are venturing into this industry. This has resulted in a lot of business competition with each new vehicle trying to outdo the other in terms of looks and comfort in order to attract more customers.
Due to its popularity as the major form of local transport in Kenya, there was need for the government to regulate their operations. Hence, each matatu is meant to have licenses to operate and meet all requirement inclusive the set speed limit, licensed driver and conductor.
Routes and Sacco
Most matatus plying within Nairobi and it’s suburb or plying from Nairobi have set routes identified by either a number (mostly in Nairobi and it’s environs) or names of their destinations (last place they will stop). The matatus are run from a terminus and different routes have different terminus.
Apart from the routes, the matatu industry recently introduced Sacco to help in route management. The saccos are made up of the matatu owners and as part of the regulations, one needs to be a member of a particular Sacco in order to operate in this public transport system.
Some routes have more than one Sacco and what distinguishes them from the rest is their name and how they run and maintain their matatus. Some even have their drivers and conductors (also known as makanga shortened in sheng as ‘kange’) wearing a set uniform.
One of the main thing that makes the matatus popular around the world is the kind of vehicle body art done on them. Over the years, the youth have had a great impact in this matatu industry leading to most matatu owners adopting to decorating the matatus with fine art and graffiti.
The art mostly feature pictures of famous personalities worldwide, football clubs or famous and trending movies/music. This has created another industry of artists who work to showcase their talent on the matatus both on the outer body and the interior decor.
The decor is designed to make the vehicle attractive and bring in more customers hence more profits. This has brought about very heavy competition with each matatu owner aiming to have their vehicle being the most outstanding.
In addition to having great art decor, the owners now go to the extent of adding in powerful sounds systems and TV screens providing a whole round of entertainment all through the journey. There is even one matatu that has tried to add in a DJ for weekend entertainment offering travelers a chance to request their choice of music mixes.
Pros and Cons of the Matatu Industry
- They are pocket friendly as compared to taxis or private car hire.
- The matatus operate on all the major towns and suburbs making town to town connection easy.
- They are quite flexible as they stop at all bus stop upon request whichever part of Kenya you are headed to.
- The matatus operate in a terminus making it easy to locate the right route.
- Though not everyone enjoys loud music, there are different matatus available for your choice of comfort with the loud music matatus being popular with the young.
- The matatus have been known to drive recklessly with most not following the set speed limit of 80kph (50mph) and stopping on designated areas inconveniencing other road users.
- Due to the youth influence, with most operators being youths, there is an increase in drug and substance abuse with some operating under influence endangering their customers lives.
- The security while traveling in the matatus is also not good and there are high chances of being mugged while on board.
- The loud music and explicit videos shown on the TV screen do not go well with most parents traveling with young kids as there is no regulation on the kind of content shown on their screens.
- There is a lot of bribery and corruption between the police and the matatus, hence their road recklessness goes unpunished till lives are lost.
Popular routes you should check out while in Nairobi
Some routes are quite popular as having the most outstanding matatus due to the art work and the inside interior done on the vehicles. From the great exterior graffiti to the powerful sound system and clear TV screens. One feels like they are in a moving disco tech.
Most popular routes include;
Rongai route: This route is popular for always producing new matatus that have high end interiors on top of the outstanding art done on the outside. The matatus ply from Nairobi city to Rongai area, a distance of about 25km. Musician Trey Songs had a ride in one of the matatus in this route during his tour in Kenya.
Buruburu route: This route has had popular matatus that dates back to the 80s though other routes have tried to out do them, they still remain at the top of the popularity table.
Umoja/Komarok route: This is a route which has quite a variety of matatus due to the high population of the estates where they ply. We have the highly decorated matatus which are popular with the young adults as well as the laid back matatus preferred by the older folks.
South B/C route: This is a route common with the middle class of Nairobi hence has always had matatus that all appealing to represent this upmarket neighborhood.
Route 44/Kasarani/thika rd route: This route has a few matatus that always stand out and are highly preferred by the youth with the Kasarani route having produced a matatu with a DJ.
Upcountry Luxury shuttles: Apart from the modern city matatus, the upcountry owners have not being left out. There are now luxury shuttles that offer transport from Nairobi city to Upcountry towns, journeys that take approximately 2 to 8 hrs with great attention to the comfort of their clients making them stand out from the rest.
When visiting Kenya, make a point of trying out this popular mode of transport and maybe share what your experience was like.
If you can handle the loud music, high road speed or the Swahili slang popularly known as sheng that is used by most of the operators. I guarantee you will have a story to tell at the end of your journey, whether positive or negative.
Wondering where to stay while in Nairobi? Find out here.