Matatu – The Origin and Evolution of Kenya’s Popular PSVs

Look around Africa and show me any admirable matatus (Public Service Vehicles) out there like the Kenyan ones; loud music, cool graphics and general customization, one or two rude conductors here and another careless driver there. Its our way of life. A ride in any of them, any tourist will tell you the feeling is just authentic. A life time experience away from the chauffeured cabs of New york and London (Randani…). A walk around town, you’ll spot tourists admiring and taking photos in and with them. Matatu! a Kenyan product and image.

In Kenya, the Matatu Industry has played a major role in development since independence. Although a few would like us to believe that matatus are a menace to Kenyans’ daily lives, many fail to grasp the positive vibe matatus bring to our nation.

Where did Matatus originate? As many of you may recall, Kenya Bus Service used to be the only mode of transport in the city of Nairobi for a long time. A number of entrepreneurs felt it not right for Kenya Bus Company to rule the scenes in public transport. Then, transport was mainly from Nairobi Eastlands where majority Africans lived. So, a few people came up with ideas and started private transport services and charged 30 Kenya cents only, to any place you traveled within Nairobi. This served as much help to poor African workers who trekked by foot to work from Eastlands’ estates such as Hamza, Makadara, Maringo, Mbotela and other places to town. Ksh.30cents in Kikuyu dialect is Mang’otore Matatu thus the name Matatu.

Lamborghini (pic by Matwana Culture)

However, this was not received well by the city council of Nairobi whose Kenya Bus Service was one of their ventures alongside other foreign investors. It must have been a threat to their monopoly in the city transport system. In the rural areas, Private Bus Companies were in full business and no matatus ever ventured into these areas until sometimes in the nineteen seventies. Once, private bus owners operating in the rural areas ganged up, and went to the then President Kenyatta to complain that matatus were denying them business to which the president retorted. “If the matatus are taking away your business, why not sell the buses and buy matatus?” A clever answer it was, and those who cared to get a hint of what Mzee implied, went and bought many matatus and started chasing in matatu transport.

Since independence, the matatu industry has evolved from the use of Ford make omnibuses, Peugeot 404s and 504s to Nissan and Toyota vans. This has eased transport to even the interior regions of the country. Currently, the industry employs many people in different capacities such as drivers, touts, route commanders, accountants and scouts to the very owners of the vehicles. Others run saccos which were created in the 90s to control various routes and were a centre of conflict with the Transport Licensing Board years back. A few years back the industry was controlled by cartels who really intimidated many stakeholders. New comers in the industry were forced to pay large amounts of money to the ‘Mafia’ of the matatus (As they were known in and outside circles). The money included fees of introduction to saccos and routes. Owners surrendered their vehicles and the saccos chose drivers.



Nowadays, matatus are most organized with different saccos and groups concentrating on specific regions, others in major cities and they guard welfare of their members. The industry has at times fallen into bad publicity ranging from many drivers and touts getting hooked to alcohol abuse, usage of marijuana and other drugs, vulgar language, links to criminal organized groups to general irresponsibility on our roads. However, Matatu owners and operators say that they are most misunderstood, in that they work under very difficult circumstances. Owners claim they incur heavy cost paying for licenses, insurance that has already been doubled this year, coping up with the ever rising cost of fuel and spare parts without mentioning bribing traffic police officers who have to have their share everyday irregardless of there being rules broken or observed.

Matatu photos courtesy of Matwana (Matatu Culture)

Author : Tourite

Tourite Safaris is one of the leading Destination Management Companies in Kenya. We offer a one-stop solution to travelers and corporate organizations. Our tour packages bring a unique aspect of culture, natural wild, unimaginable beach experiences taking you to the most hidden treasures of East Africa.

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