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A CASHLESS SOCIETY IN AFRICA: THE REALITIES OF A CASHLESS ‘MATATU’ SYSTEM IN KENYA



The Interview
An accident vehicle

The July morning air is heavy and cold; the clouds seem to stifle every equatorial ray that wants to filter to the ground. A man wearing a petrified look is busy sweeping a concrete block, the building I am walking to has seen better days, and holds a colonial feel: present, ancient and minutely imposing. On the side of the building is a tin hut; this is the residence of the traffic police department. The officer I meet rigidly sits on a rickety chair with an oversized occurrence book in his hands. Would he like to comment on the ‘cashless matatus’? No comment, the relevant traffic police officers are out in the field covering an event the president is attending.
Outside the clutter is palpable, old vehicles that were impounded decades ago that were never collected sit side by side with mangled car wrecks, evidence of the high number of car accidents that are prevalent on the Kenyan roads. 

Impounded motorcycles
Impounded motorcycles strewn like garbage in a dumpsite, occupy a sizable portion of the police station’s compound.  As a recent introduction to the Kenyan roads, they came like an avalanche that spread from Uganda few years ago, today one can barely drive in a Kenyan town or city without running the risk of hitting one of these contraptions of terror.

A few steps away from the police station I engage a number of ‘Matatu’ drivers and touts on their thoughts of the ‘cashless matatus’.

“I know of a man who can only afford to spend 40 Kshs (0.23 $) on transport daily, he wakes up at an ungodly hour and boards a ‘matatu’ just to beat the peak hour and leaves the city very late at night to also pay the least fare which he can afford, he is paid by the day and can only live from hand to mouth” One said.

“I also know of a ‘matatu’ owner who sees this cashless system as a way to reign in his meager source of income from a government that is not offering him any better services” stated another.

“ I remember vividly the ‘Mega rider’ cards which existed in the 1990s which allowed someone to take a ride anywhere using a card for a monthly flat rate, this current card will only want to bring in more tax revenue to the government, to the detriment to the poor” states the first resolutely.

Another sagely states “The idea to reign in corruption and increase tax might be a good one, but they need to start from the buses and minivans which are owned by richer owners, they shouldn’t treat all owners as the same, some are really struggling to even fill their vehicles with passengers on any given day”.

Matatus waiting to fill up with passengers
“Remember that most commuters undertake short commutes, a cashless system will need to be sensitive to this. I think it will make more sense for long distance commutes,” states a tout.  


The Road to Cashless 'Matatus'

Kenya has high adult illiteracy, which stands at 38.5% of the population (15.6 million people ), which directly imputes that the system has to be simple, easy to use and offer certain benefits that, supersede the current cash based system.

The other effect of this demerit is that development projects that would normally take a short time end up taking a much longer period. This is something that the guardians of this system have to contend with. As of 2nd July 2014 the scheduled Nairobi wide enforcement of the cashless ‘Matatu’ system had failed to take off mainly due to lack of proper awareness and understanding of how the system functions by the ‘matatu’ owners, operators and commuters.

Coordination and sensitization was clearly understated, so too was the information needed to roll out supporting infrastructure before the launch date.

While the journey to financial inclusion in Kenya is progressing well, with adult population totally excluded from financial services having declined to 25.4% in 2013, mainly due to M-PESA and initiatives done by Equity Bank. More needs to be done specific to scenarios sensitive to developing countries.

Of interest also is the Kenyan road system, which is heavily concentrated in the classic colonial railway path, which straddles from Mombasa to the border with Uganda, with strong concentration in the Central region. The Kenyan road system has to become more equally distributed and it should express future aspirations of Kenyans, and not depict its past.

What this advancement will bring is better usage of the Kenyan roads by Kenyans.
As we speak there are certain communities that are not directly included in the national development conversation, they are marginalized simply because there is no road that gets to their community.

The equation to prove is that better roads, lead to increased movement and interaction between communities, towns and cities, which translates to increased development around the country.

Pastoral communities reliant on food aid, Kenya. Photo: Andy Hall/
Gone will be the days where the stores in Eldoret and Kitale are bursting with excess grain while a few kilometers away in Turkana people are dying of hunger. 

One element that the cashless ‘matatu’ system wants to end is corruption in the public transport sector. While corruption can only be overcome when there is a culture change from the grass roots to the epicenter of authority in Kenya, a concerted effort has to be implemented revolving around prevention, detection, sanctions and restitution. And I truly believe the tone needs to be set from the top as noted in this article

As the government moves to regulate the public transport in Kenya and transition the paratransit business estimated to be worth 200 billion ($ 2.28 Billion) from the informal to the formal economy, increase employment opportunities and inculcate a culture of respect for motor sector regulations, there is need to appreciate that better consultation and consensus is required from across the broad spectrum of stakeholders to make the current attempt at cashless ‘matatus’ a reality in the near future.

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