Elizabeth Njoki co-owns a 33-seater matatu (public service vehicle) with her husband, Sammy Kiiru.
That has not always been the case though for Ms Njoki who has steadily risen up the ranks in the matatu industry.
“My passion for the matatu industry must have been born while I was in high school when during the drama festivals I acted as a bus conductor,” she reminisces.
“Growing up, I was also fascinated by the way the conductors usually shouted at the stage as they competed for commuters,” says Ms Njoki, who started off as a store keeper, a job she diligently did for seven years.
Ms Njoki’s love affair with matatus did not die and while still storekeeping, she met a woman who was looking to invest in the matatu industry. They had a discussion about the industry and the woman asked her if she would be her conductor if she bought a matatu.
The woman indeed bought a matatu and Ms Njoki accepted to be a conductor. That was how her journey in the matatu industry began.
“I worked as a conductor at the Embassava Sacco for two years. In that period, we managed to help the owner of the matatu offset her loan as we were able to meet our targets,” says Ms Njoki.
But how did her family perceive her entry into a field considered not fit for a woman?
“When I started off, my family was not for it. They did not think it suited a woman or was decent enough for me to be engaging in,” she reveals.
“Over time though, and when they realised it was a job that was putting food on the table and educating our children, they accepted it.”
Despite the challenges that go with the rough and tumble of the chaotic matatu industry, her work was impressive and the sacco officials noticed it and encouraged her to apply for a better job in the Sacco.
“I got a job as a stage attendant, which entailed making sure that the commuters were safe and had a listening ear for their complaints. I was also passionate about assisting the elderly, physically challenged people and the expectant mothers as they boarded the matatus,” explains Ms Njoki.
Working in the industry and interacting with drivers, conductors and matatu owners broadened Ms Njoki’s perspective of the industry and soon she was convinced she had learned enough and started entertaining the idea of being her own boss.
She continued to increase her scope of knowledge in the industry as her superiors added her extra duties at work.
As a supervisor she ensured the vehicles in the Sacco met their targets, were serviced on time and genuine spare parts used.
“I figured that if I was instrumental in helping other matatu owners clear their car loans, I too would manage one of my own. I started selling the idea to my husband who had by now joined the industry as a driver where he, too, had managed to help clear the loans of his boss by his diligent work,” she says.
At around the same time she broached the subject of buying a matatu with her husband, a relative was having a hard time clearing his car loan due to financial challenges.
Ms Njoki and her husband proposed to buy the 33-seater from him. The couple bought the matatu last year for Sh2 million and are almost done with repaying the loan they took to top up the Sh100,000 they had saved.
Her husband took over the role of driver. They tried to look for a trustworthy conductor in vain. They then decided to work together with Ms Njoki handling the roles of a conductor.
“Earlier this year, we agreed that I should resign from my job in the Sacco and renew my conductor’s licence so that I could take over the conductor’s role in our matatu,” she says.
Ms Njoki says when starting they drew glances from matatu crews who wondered how a couple would work together in the matatu business.
“They told my husband that he could not have the opportunity to give girls free rides. Luckily for me, my husband did not listen,” she says, adding that while on the road she is a conductor at home she is a wife.
The couple in their early 40s works from 5.30am to 9.00pm every Monday to Saturday.
But how does the mother of three balance work and family?
She says their two elder sons who are 24 and 21, are almost independent while the youngest who is nine is also learning to be independent.
“Our first-born son is an artist and he usually assists the youngest with his home work while my second-born son is pursuing automotive engineering and usually helps us in minor repairs of the matatu while on vacation,” narrates Ms Njoki.
She admits there are challenges in the industry she faces as a woman but with time she has toughened up and is now able to navigate around most of them.
“I have also noticed that most women, expectant mothers and the physically challenged are more comfortable riding with me as I will ensure that they are comfortable on board before the vehicle takes off,” she says.
“I’m also comfortable knowing that my husband cannot take off before I’m safely in the vehicle as he takes extra care.”