A lot has been said about the matatu sector, especially in Nairobi and how its runaway chaos is a blot to society. How its drivers and conductors are active enablers of corruption. How the same crew members are uncivil and rude to passengers. While some of them live up to their bad reputation, many are not the villains that society makes them out to be.
Matatu drivers and touts often start their shifts as early as 4am and finish as late as midnight. Many of them work almost twice as long as the average office worker yet get paid less than this average officer they transport to and from work every day.
They spend long hours on the road braving traffic jams, corrupt traffic police officers and extortionist gangs. Although some of them are enablers of the traffic jams, corruption and extortion, many are hardworking Kenyans whose only goal is to earn a decent living.
According to Peter Kiige, the Nairobi Conductors and Drivers Sacco chairman, there are approximately 125,000 drivers and conductors in Nairobi operating more than 25,000 matatus. Their vehicles ply on eight corridors that include Jogoo Road, Mombasa Road, Thika Road, Langata Road, Juja Road, Ngong Road, Waiyaki Way and Lower Kabete Road. Thousands of matatus ply these corridors on a daily basis ferrying hundreds of thousands of passengers. This transport juggernaut is kept rolling by drivers and conductors who remain largely invisible to society.
The Nairobi Conductors and Drivers Sacco and other key saccos in the sector must, therefore, ensure that the voices of the matatu crew are heard. No matatu sector initiatives will come to fruition if these voices are muffled or ignored. As a case in point, the cashless system foundered partly because of inadequate consultations with key stakeholders in the matatu sector, chief among them being the drivers and conductors.
Introduced in 2014, the cashlite fare payment system suffered a stillbirth. One of the biggest lessons of this failure is that conductors and drivers are among the biggest stakeholders of the matatu sector and must be treated as such.
Indeed, drivers and conductors must be fully embraced by the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority, which is a policy step in the right direction. This Authority primarily seeks to oversee the establishment of an integrated, efficient, effective and sustainable public transport system within the Metropolitan Area. This area encompasses Nairobi, Kiambu, Machakos, Kajiado and Murang’a counties.
In addition to the policy front, the matatu value chain should reward drivers and conductors, not constrict them. Every day, millions of shillings change hands in matatus. Although drivers and conductors are central to this value chain, they are not optimal beneficiaries of the profits that accrue from the sector. This dynamic must change so that crew members can stop operating from a point of desperation.
Another area of growing concern has to do with their own safety. In recent months, there has been an upsurge of extortion from criminal gangs such as Mungiki Sect. Such developments are quite detrimental to the growth of the sector and wellbeing of drivers and conductors. They cannot implement their duties satisfactorily if they feel threatened by gangs that seek to reap where they have not sown.
Such criminal activities only serve to exacerbate the chaos that is synonymous with the matatu sector. But even as police and policymakers take action to remedy this, sector change must start with the drivers and conductors themselves. To accelerate such change, the Nairobi Drivers and Conductors Sacco has already put forward a very concrete proposal for widespread training of conductors and drivers.
LESSONS FROM AVIATION
Flight attendants and pilots don’t just show up in a plane one morning and begin working. For pilots, experience is key. They must clock a certain number of hours before they can be designated as captains. Flight attendants also go through rigorous training from customer care to conflict resolution. We need to model our matatu sector on this elaborate training of the airline industry.
In this regard, all matatu drivers and conductors need to receive comprehensive training in customer service. This should be a mandatory requirement. The National Youth Service may be the best entity to offer this training since they also focus on imparting discipline. Imagine a scenario where all the drivers and conductors in the city receive customer service training in areas such as interpersonal communication, customer relationship management and customer perspectives.
For some, the training will serve in polishing skills that they already possess. For others, it will equip them with new skills that will greatly improve matatu passengers’ travel experience. Certificates attained after such training should be so prestigious and competitive that our young people will aspire to receive the training. However, the biggest motivation for acquiring the certificates will be their commensurate financial rewards.
Indeed, we need to celebrate and reward competency and decency in the matatu sector. That is why I am working closely with the Nairobi Conductors and Drivers Sacco and other key stakeholders to roll out the Ma3 awards. These awards will celebrate safe driving, competency and decency in the matatu sector. Although safe driving is about observing traffic signs even when no one is watching, it also entails defensive driving.
According to AA Kenya, defensive driving is the practice of maintaining an awareness of road and weather conditions, other vehicles, road users and potentially hazardous situations, then taking steps to prevent a potential crash. It reduces the risk of collision by anticipating dangerous situations, adverse conditions or the mistakes of others. All matatu drivers need to be masters of this.
As a society, we need to celebrate and reward those that muster such driving. Doing this will help in nurturing a new culture of decency and competency in the matatu sector.
A culture where it is cool to drive safely and treat passengers with respect; a culture where female passengers are not subjected to sexual harassment; a culture where self-policing plays a bigger role than traffic policing. a culture where matatu drivers and conductors will be holders of enviable jobs.