Innovations have been known to transform the way humans operate by changing a system for better and more efficient modes of operations. This is often with the discovery or use of a single technology. Archaeologists credit the earliest use of a wheel to the work of a potter. Yes, it was a career in pot making that necessitated the need for a wheel that spins. The combination of a wheel and an axle became the foundation of many types of locomotion and changed the time that was used to move from one place to another and the mode of transport from walking.
Technological innovations create a value network that disrupts the way of doing things for a certain people, business or nation. In Kenya the SWVL mode of transport is threatening to do just that. If it becomes widespread among the so-called middle class, it will change the matatu industry, just the way app-based cars changed the taxi industry forever.
That SWVL has managed to attract the attention of the matatu cartels in city hall speaks volumes on the possibility of their system creating a better life for Kenyans. No doubt, the Matatu industry is hype, creative, colourful and has the most fascinating perception of art that exemplifies a street culture that even the users cannot keep up with.
But, it is also chaotic, uncontrolled, noisy and serves its primary purpose of moving people from point A to B, very poorly, on many routes. This is in spite of the improvements brought about by the introduction of the route SACCO systems, which placed a level of accountability and responsibility to the owners of the vehicles. But now a disruptive innovation is taking root.
It is important to note that the use of the term disruptive innovation is in the broadest sense, where by the incumbents of the matatu industry are shaken and are stumbling around trying to stop change. This only happens in an industry that is convinced that their status quo would be constant in the long haul and believe many times that they enjoy a certain monopoly in a market.
The new bus system is based on an app on which one can book fixed rate and pickup and drop off are at predetermined stops and often coincide with regular matatu stops. This offers a level of security that has been missing in app-based taxi services.
The bus apparently only waits for passengers at any point for about two minutes and is on the move again. Everyone knows the frustration of a matatu that can gets to a stage halfway on the journey and decide stop for long to fill the empty seats before it can proceed, without any consideration for the passengers already in the bus, some of whom may have already travelled a long distance and very close to the end of their commute.
There is security in numbers. If the buses are clean and reliable, Kenya will certainly be hearing of this mode of transport much more than we are at the moment. That is what the general population who can afford it, will opt for.
The government has refused to get matatus out the city and many times half-hearted efforts only last a day or two. Never mind that the National Transport and Safety Authority now says in that many matatus are no longer operating on the SACCO system. How this can happen can only be explained by laxity in implementing city regulations.
Yet at the same time, City Hall is quoting every law they can find, that would make the operations of the app-based transport system impossible. They claim that public transport has to stick to a pre-authorised route. But the routes should be determined by what serves the public, not what some city official has put on paper.
Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. There are many Kenyans who want a safe, quite, efficient and enjoyable commute. Those will continue to support the app-based bus, while the rest who want the noise, excitement and unreliable commute may still stick to matatus, but the City Hall should not make this choice for commuters.