Nairobi's anarchic private bus system is inching its way towards major innovations and for users these developments are not before time. Russell Southwood talks to a Mary Mwangi's start-up Data Integrated that is on the front line of these changes.
I first interviewed Mary Mwangi at the back end of 2016 after the first run at automating payments on the city's matatus by Government had run into the sand. Undeterred, she was still working away at getting her "back-office" systems set up by matatu owners.
But first, let's set the scene. Like most African cities, Nairobi is plagued by traffic and the new radial routes around the city seem to have simply allowed more traffic to get stuck at peak times. In amongst, the transport mix are 60,000 large and small buses run by individual private owners. The matatus are an anarchic transport system whose weaving across lanes and stopping cause many accidents and traffic jams at key interchanges.
Three million people go in and out of the city every day, meaning that these buses carry 6 million passengers. For many passengers, who spend significant parts of their lives on these buses, this is not a happy experience.
Mwangi's company Data Integrated launched in 2012 to provide automated mobile money payments for the bus owners of business transactions while also providing backend analytic data. In 2017 it processed over 5 million transactions worth around US$40 million. The company has been funded by family and friends but is looking to fundraise.
Most recently it has launched Epesi Trip Planner, a web-based vehicle scheduling software that queues, routes, maps, and manages rides, drivers & conductors in real-time. The product is part of Data Integrated's full public transport solutions, MobiTill Epesi, that "aims at streamlining the country transport system".
Epesi Trip Planner was launched to meet the latest challenge facing private bus owners. Nairobi's County Government has put restrictions on where low schedule buses can park in the Central Business District (CBD). Owners face financial penalties if they have more than two buses in one bus stop location:" It was very challenging because the buses were parking everywhere".
The new app enables bus owners to see where their buses are and to schedule them more effectively. In addition, the owners can add a cost system. Furthermore the people catching the bus can see where it is on its route, have some idea of how long it will take to arrive at their stop and have a better chance of catching it. Potentially, County Government who are (in theory) responsible for regulating the matatus will be able to see all the scheduling of buses across the city and see how well private owners are meeting demand.
The new app was piloted with one bus company and has now been rolled out in 40 bus companies:"We went bus company by bus company". The bus company makes a one-time payment of US$200 for the set-up and each bus is paying US$30:"Once they get it, there's not much to put into the system". In the medium to long term, Mwangi wants to add cash tracking to the existing management system.
Cashless bus payment transactions are now back on the table. In partnership with local banks and Mastercard and Visa, a Tap 'n Go system will be launched some time in the next two months:"We are working with Visa who are issuing cards to local banks. People will adopt gradually". These are prepaid wallet cards and users can load up with funds from their mobile money accounts.
There is still resistance from the bus crews themselves (who skim revenues) but the owners fear the challenges of the future: greater regulation and the Government's planned Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT), as already seen in African cities like Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg. In January 2019 the Government ordered the first buses for a city BRT scheme:"There is a threat to their existence if they don't adapt but most resistance has begun to go away. It's taken a while to get here for the environment we need but it's coming together".
"(In terms of the BRT) we already have a transport system. The buses are always there. Government hasn't yet worked out how they will do things to improve what is already there so don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. What's already working is not appreciated".
And what's the attitude of the Government to these new online data systems?:"I don't feel they've embraced it. They've been invited to events but they've not shown up and they are not requesting it yet, neither national Government nor county government who run the transport in Nairobi. I'm waiting".
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