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Nairobi: Carry Your Card or Stay at Home

The introduction of cashless fare payment technology on public transport in a third-world city like Nairobi, Kenya is a bold move. This is a city that is ranked fourth in Commuter Pain Index by IBM and anything - any technology aiming to improve the situation - is highly welcome. Now commuters and vehicle owners are enthusiastic at seeing technology coming to their rescue in such a timely manner.  However, this isn’t a move that appeals to everyone.

Public Transport at a Glance

Nairobi features a unique public transport culture riddled with cartelism, hooliganism, disorder and outright disregard of traffic rules. A typical ride in a public vehicle in Nairobi features ear-busting reggae, hip hop, R&B, heavy metal rock or country music depending on the route, the time and the taste of the DJ-driver behind the wheel. All this is happening amid dangerous auto-maneuvers on pot-holed roads and traffic jams in competition for the little space on the pavements.

Many a times, you will be short-changed or over-charged in the process and you are lucky if you escape rude verbal insults if you raise a voice against all this. The worst happens when the rain falls. As soon as conductors and touts sight heavy rain clouds hovering on the skies, fares are doubled. With one or two rain drops, they are tripled!

Earlier Non-Tech Interventions

Despite efforts to restore sanity in the sector in 2004 by the late John Michuki, then Minister for Transport,the industry has remained highly disorderly with operators in complete disregard of traffic rules and ministry directives. Traffic officers have also continued being highly corrupt and compromised.

Initiatives to improve the situation included having the PSV vehicles fitted with 80km speed governors, safety belts and directives to carry a specified maximum number of passengers. The matatus (mini-buses) have been made to operate from a fixed route and need to belong to a Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO). The former unruly, rasta-wielding touts, conductors and drivers were also supposed to assume an “official” look complete with maroon and blue uniforms, badges and proof of clean criminal records. This idea lasted as long as Michuki remained the Minister and has since evaporated into oblivion.

The Use of Technology

Now it is all coming back, albeit in a rather different manner. Today, powerful technological intervention is taking root in Kenya. In an industry that is largely controlled by “digitally ignorant” individuals hungry for quick cash at the expense of vehicle owners, the public transport sector is taking an unprecedented course by using digital technology to collect revenue and shifting to cashless payment methods. The real strength of this technological initiative comes from the fact that the idea has been delivered by vehicle owners themselves, and is therefore more likely to be embraced.

Big industry players want to seize this opportunity to recover 30% lost revenue due to cartels and also give the government (through the Kenya Revenue Authority) a chance to legitimately collect taxes. An additional benefit is to fill up the loopholes where traffic officers have been crippling the industry taking bribes from operators.

"It has been a business with no entry room, full of disorders and run by cartels. Those who were weak were trampled on and those who soldiered on could not dictate their revenue streams. The cashless system will be a game changer that will transform the industry to a professionally run business," says the chairman of Matatu Owners Association (MOA) Simon Kimutai.

How the Cashless Technology Works

Although cashless technology may be a norm in developed cities like London, New York and others around the globe, it is a new and intimidating technology that is leaving many commuters in Nairobi in awe.

The leading cashless technology is Equity Bank and Google’s partnership of BebaPay. In this, the PSV vehicles are fitted with small smart phones that are Near Field Communication (NFC) enabled. The passengers tap their card on the phone and money is transferred digitally from the card to the phone. A confirmation message is then sent to the passenger through his or her phone. The passenger does not need a bank account; a Google account is all that is needed. And the transaction happens without any internet connectivity.

Google’s Denis Gikunda says: “Cashless will lead to greater transparency, accountability, organization… and ultimately better public transportation infrastructure”.

While according to Mwakio Ngale, General Manager of Fibre Space, the providers of the cashless solution dubbed My1963, commuters will be able to pay fares by tapping the pre-paid card on a Point of Sale terminal installed in buses and matatus, and their fares will be deducted from their card.

Meanwhile, Safaricom (the leading mobile service provider) has reportedly signed up to 1,300 public transport vehicles including taxis through their “LipanaMPesa” (Pay with MPesa) billing system. The firm has also teamed up with Kenya Bus Service to introduce Abiria Card to provide more cashless public transportation solutions.

Will This Really Take Place?

Despite all these benefits there are problems with this proposed system. Kenya has more than 35% illiteracy levels. The population is culturally slow in absorbing change. Public operators are traditionally against the use of technology. All this has led The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) to relax the initial July deadline and say that now the cashless fare payment system will be implemented gradually.

Francis Meja (the NTSA Director-General) has stated that the organization is working on a common swipe gadget that will accept the multiple cards issued by the different operators “to avoid inconvenience to the public”.

Other stakeholders are not so positive, as ending endemic corruption is a long slow process. In normal circumstances for example, the vehicle operators only submit the money collected from passengers boarding the matatus at original departure points. Other moneys from luggage, or overloaded passengers who board along the way, remains with the vehicle driver and conductor. This is fast diminishing, everything is going to the vehicle owner, the conductors and drivers are now feeling the pinch.

As they popularly put it recently, they are very “hungry” since the cow has “refused with the milk”.


Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and a communications professional


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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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