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Hey Google: Forget Smart Cars, Think Smart Matatus for Kenya

By Wayan Vota on January 7, 2015


Recently at a Red Cross resilience event in Nairobi, we explored several new and emerging technologies for development, including smart cars.  While that didn’t resonate with many Kenyans,  the idea of a Smart Matatu sure did.  Incorporating the best of Google cars and fleet management technology, smart matatus could revolutionize everyday transport and urban disaster resilience across African cities.

The Matatu Menace

Sadly, shared informal buses (matatus in Kenya) are seen as a necessary menace. They are required for people to move around Nairobi and other major African cities, but they are seen as unsafe. Matatus are often driven too fast and without regard or respect for road rules, and packed beyond normal limits in a quest by drivers and owners to maximize the number of passengers, and therefore, profit.  Ask anyone in Nairobi, and they will tell you a matatu horror story.

A New Matatu

Fleet management and smart car technology could change that story, though. A smart matatu could have multiple safety features that make them a benefit to the community in normal times and in disaster response.

Let’ start with driver safety. A blow test could check drivers for sobriety, virtual reality heads-up displays could show maps of traffic and alternate routes, while video cameras could record driver behavior.

For passengers, matatus already roll with WiFi and mobile money. Collision and pothole sensors could be added to improve driver safety and ride quality for passengers. Cameras on passengers could also protect them from theft or worse.

Disaster Response

In disasters, matatus could play a whole other role. With active sensing of their location and passenger loads, empty matatus could be directed to disaster scenes to help communities respond or evacuate. After a disaster, matatus could lower rates at specific locations or on certain routes to help communities focus on the costly investments in rebuilding.

Active tracking could also show where matatus could alter routes or stops to adjust to shifting population and commuting patterns, speeding recovery.

Coming Soon?

While this scenario would take government and private sector working together, there is self-interest by the communities, drivers, owners, and government to see this technology come to fruition.

Communities could prefer smart matatus over others, or be willing to pay more for increased safety. Drivers and owners could get greater efficiencies from their fleet without resorting to crazy driving. The government would get a new partner in disaster response and better road load management every day.

A win-win for everyone, especially the 1.4 million Kenyans who ride in a matatu across Nairobi every day.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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9 Comments to “Hey Google: Forget Smart Cars, Think Smart Matatus for Kenya”

  1. Edward Pule says:

    Who ever heard of matatus lowering their rates? More likely they would increase their rates in a disaster as demand for their services would increase. As for altering routes based on ‘shifting populations and commuter patterns’ well, the Mungiki would have a few things to say about that.

  2. Sounds very promising, but much of this is not likely to happen anytime soon. First, there is the cost and availability of the sensors to measure, record and report on road conditions, matatu status and a heads up display does not come cheap. Are there any for cars in other markets and how close are they to being mass marketed? Likeliest and most promising in the immediate is the use of matatus for disaster response. That could happen now through dedicated mobile phone channels with focus on the matatus and their owners. Incentives could push this idea along. Firms such as Safaricom and others may have some ideas going forward. Could be an interesting opportunity for one of the innovation Hubs in Nairobi and for other innovators and businesses looking to cash in on the IoT in Kenya and beyond. Does Libelium (www.libelium.com) , the Spanish sensor company have any insights and better still working relations with Kenyan and other firms in this regard? When it comes to sensors, the likely better investment will be in intelligent transport including traffic management, which will be a great benefit to everyone who use Nairobi’s cluttered arteries and streets. Much remains to be done but existing technology,including mobile technologies and social media, can make a big difference when it comes to traffic management. Perhaps it is already happening in Nairobi and surrounds?

  3. Dan SIsken says:

    I added the comment below to the post “Aren’t Medicine and Water More Important than Telecommunications?” but I thought I would add it here too as it comments on this article as well and makes a broader argument.
    I would like to make a plea for a more introspection about the role of ICTs in development. In particular, at http://www.ictworks.org/2014/12/22/arent-medicine-and-water-more-important-than-telecommunications/ I was struck by the answer about water, latrines, and medicine. It is a huge leap to assume that access to connectivity will automatically provide all of these other necessities of human development. In some cases, I can agree that increased connectivity can be a significant help, but if there are no doctors nearby to call, low literacy (so forget about the benefits of downloading a book), minimal income-generating assets, and no access to clean water; smart phones and internet connectivity are not likely to be engines of change.

    Similarly, I was struck by the article about “smart matatus.” Of course, it is theoretically possible that smart car technology could enhance safety. But who is going to monitor the blow test for sobriety and driver behavior? What guarantee is there that the governance of these systems will not just be another way for authorities to extract bribes? Why wouldn’t drivers disable bothersome systems as they do taxi meters in many countries? Who is going to pay for virtual reality displays? And who is going to maintain these systems and at what cost? Why not just fix the potholes and actually solve the related transportation issues?

    We do a disservice to the real potential of ICTs in development–and our own credibility–when we make grand assumptions that come pretty close to equating the adoption of ICTs with development itself. Can we lower the hype, stop throwing ideas at the wall, hoping that some of them will stick, and be serious about the difficult, complex, problems of human development? Can we admit that ICTs are tools, not answers, and that they are likely to be effective in some cases and not worth the investment in others?

  4. Hogwash! There is no disservice is looking at options and even proposing and debating some! We need more adventurous and imaginative minds in development, not a bunch of bromides about development and ideas, the net result of which is inaction and same old same old.

  5. Lloyd Amoah says:

    The matatus are essentially death dispensers on four wheels. What Nairobi needs is improved roads and a new mass transportation system. And I agree with Dan on the key questions not only in Kenya but across Africa that need urgent addressing to provide the vital context for the useful deployment and utilization of advances in ICT. I am an African and I know about these issues firsthand and on a daily basis. My book (please see link below) looks at some of these questions.

  6. Dan SIsken says:

    I think you are correct about imaginative minds, but I’m not sure what you mean by the “bromides” and “same old same old.” Can you enlighten us?

    • Hello Dan,

      Thanks for your response. The main bromide that your comment brings to mind is the following one: “Keep it simple because people are not intelligent enough to understand new ways of doing things and/or sometimes complex ideas and/or technical solutions, especially those living in the developing world”.

      If this had been the banking and finance sector, you would have suggested the best way forward is to strengthen the banking system and build more banks throughout the country, especially in rural areas in order to increase financial inclusion and shorten line ups, the latter being the equivalent of repairing pot holes in the banking world. M-Pesa would never had come to light.

      Fortunately, some innovative, questioning and bright individuals from both the private sector (Safaricom, etc.) and the Government of Kenya (the regulator) who prepared to take a risk, figured out otherwise.

      M-Pesa turned on its head another bromide, that one made by then President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya towards the end of the 80s and the early 90s, that computers kill jobs, especially in the banking sector. If you had, and perhaps you have, like I did on many occasions, lined up for hours for service at the Mama Ngina branch of the “Commercial Bank of Africa”, you would have understood where President Moi was coming from. Today, when I go to NBO, I do not even have to go to the bank, more important, neither does the vast majority of Kenyans!

      The transport sector is the focus of experimentation, developments and extensive research on new ways of managing traffic and vehicles, some of which are made especially interesting by the advent of ICTs and cleantech, clean technologies, such as gas powered trucks and buses which are used extensively in Dhaka, Bangladesh for example (maybe they are already in the process of being introduced or already have been in Nairobi?).

      There is no reason to believe that in Nairobi, some of these or other solutions are not appropriate. In fact, Nairobi is a good place to take an innovative view of urban management. Habitat, the UN agency for settlements, is located in Gigiri, on the outskirts of the city and smart transport solutions are now an increasing concern to cities around the world, including those in the developing world. Habitat is at the fore of documenting their use. I am sure some of the readers of these comments can add their own on the subject of innovation in transport in Kenya and beyond.

      The solution to bromides is, education and learning and the sharing of ideas and knowledge, along with the promotion of innovation in order to encourage creativity, risk taking and investment for development.



  7. Old-school technology is already at work to reduce road traffic accidents in Matatus in Kenya. See this project: http://www.georgetown.edu/news/usaid-grant-road-safety-zusha-project.html

    Also, Digital Matatus project has a great map of the “informal” bus network in Nairobi: http://www.digitalmatatus.com/

  8. Neet stuff! Great ideas, even the conventional one!