Crowdsourced Data: Easing Nairobi Traffic

The traffic mess in developing cities is slowing down economic growth.

The ever rising degree of traffic jams in Nairobi streets is well known around the globe. In fact in 2012, the BBC classified Nairobi as one of the cities with “monster” traffic.

With the slow development of infrastructure, growing economies in Africa will see a great rise in traffic snarl ups as the middle class buy cars faster than the roads can be made. This continuous challenge has led Laban Okune Anunda to develop an application that could assist motorists in understanding the Nairobi roads situation.

Ma3Route is derived from the word “mathree” which is a slang word from the Swahili “Matatu” meaning public transport vans and mini buses. It is now one of the most used applications in Kenya, crowdsourcing information from motorists about traffic situations on various roads. The application has had a direct effect for users and the innovation has led the company to secure funding from m:Lab East Africa.

We speak to Laban Okune Anunda, Founder and find out how data can sort out this issue.

How did you come up with the idea for the application?

At first it was just to give people directions. It could tell you which matatu [public transport] to take, at what stage and the approximate cost. We built a data bank on the platform and we gave that information when people requested it.

It was also from my personal experience. I came from the rural areas to college in the city and directions sometimes become a challenge. I did not know which matatu goes where, so I wanted something to sort that out.  As you can realize it’s a transport platform, so people who are moving around asking for directions also want to know: what is the traffic situation?

I also still experience issues with traffic. Due to sheer lack of information you end up spending three hours on the road just because you drove on a road and it’s blocked, but someone knew. With Ma3route you can look for directions and subscribe to receive traffic alerts from specific roads.

How does the application work?

We have mobile apps on Android, Windows and we are finishing one on iOS. We also have a website. So on social media we just propagate the information. The cool thing with our app [is] you can subscribe to specific roads and we have updated it with voice commands to update you.

When did the service begin?

We started late 2012, by having just an app, but the real breakthrough came through PIVOT East event which is a mobile startup pitch event. We won an award in June last year, and got some grants from m:Lab East Africa who gave us an office as incubation.

What has been the greatest challenge?

The greatest challenge is always funds. Without funds you can’t do sales and marketing and can’t pay the right talent to come and execute the idea with you.

The adoption is also a challenge. People are not adopting quickly to the apps. You have to keep on showing them the value over time. But we are getting there.

When we started this we wanted to perfect the business model within Nairobi first. But we have [also] seen interest coming from Eldoret and Mombasa. We still need partnerships in those other towns. We need to have a team running the business in those towns.

We have received interest as far as from Kampala, but as I told you, our biggest challenge is funds. Lack of funds slows things down and you have to be cautious.

What is the greatest story you have heard of the service helping the public?

We have heard numerous stories on the platform. During the matatu strike [March 2014] proved a highlight. The platform really helped people get information on where the matatus were operating and where they were not operating. We have also had people sharing [stories about] their stolen cars and we even get attention from the police.

Any plans to use the data you get?

That is one of our long term plans. We have done our preliminary report and sent it to UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] and UN Habitat to get more feedback. We are already making sense of that data. [And] we are already doing traffic trend analysis. The ultimate goal is to advise the government on policy in transport.

We know the times and the days when there is traffic and [on] which roads. The data can help the government scatter the working hours to avoid stress on the limited road resources.

People also report about run down infrastructure. This can help the councils to know where to repair the roads faster. There is just a whole array of opportunities.

Could this service be used negatively?

We do not support drinking and driving and the platform should not be used to escape police dragnets for offenders. There are possibilities of it being used negatively so we have a moderation team. All content that comes to Ma3Route is moderated. If we think something is out of order we reprimand the contributor and even delete accounts.

Any future plans for the company?

We want to scale to other towns. We also want to build services around Ma3route. Distribution companies need to know which areas are congested just to save their costs. We also want to add value to house listing application. Cost benefit analysis can be added according to traffic trends and cost of transport.


Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene