Katy Fentress

Going digital in Nairobi's chaotic transport system

Katy Fentress, Nairobi Community Manager


Imagine this: You step out of your house knowing exactly when your bus will roll up to your stop, you climb aboard and pay by tapping your phone/card on the conductor's reader, you sit down, log onto the vehicle's free wifi system and either read the news, write emails and surf your social network, or play interactive games like #bestdressed, which encourage you to nominate one of your fellow passengers in a city-wide transport beauty pageant.

We could be in London, Stockholm, or Tokyo, but we aren't. This is Nairobi and the above scenario is no longer quite as sci-fi as it would have seemed a couple of years ago.

Eager to live up to its election promises, the Kenyan government has stepped up efforts to digitize Nairobi's privately run public transport system. The first move in this direction has been the introduction of the cash-less payment system, which is set to become law in July this year.

A precursor to the move to cashless payment was Bebapay, a card-based system piloted on a selection of bus routes by Equity Bank and Google in early 2013. Since then Lipa na Mpesa ("Pay with Mpesa", Mpesa being Kenya's most prominent mobile cash and banking system) has been introduced on other routes with the aim of leveraging the fact that a large number of Kenyans already have Mpesa-enabled phones, and therefore will not have to go out of their way to acquire a card.

The change does not come without hurdles: many argue that not all Kenyans are ready to embark on a cashless system which they might not fully comprehend. Furthermore, there is already much resistance from conductors who fear that their profits will decrease or, worse still, that they'll end up out of a job. Nevertheless, the move is proving popular amongst Matatu (14-seater minibus) owners, who have long had to pay fixed taxes on their income due to the difficulty of assessing exactly how much they earn and who are vulnerable to skimming from their conductors, who make no record of the daily number of passengers and freely hike up prices on a whim, pocketing any difference they make.

The cashless payment system is by no means the only development on the digital transportation front. While the telecom giant Safaricom is behind both the Lipa na Mpesa scheme and the rise of Vuma Online, the free wifi system that is now provided on something like 1000 matatus around the capital, other private companies and research institutions are also getting in on the game.

Recently a Kenyan startup called FlashCast developed an innovative mobile transport digital advertising system and mobile transport app. This is at the same time that a brand new open source matatu route map was launched as part of a collaboration between the University of Nairobi, Columbia University, MIT, and Groupshot. Known as the DigitalMatatus map, it was created entirely by volunteers using GPS-enabled smart phones and is ready to download online — although if you don't know where you are or what stops are called, it could prove a bit challenging to use.

The Flashcast Sonar app — which is available to download for Android but not for iOS — is still in beta, but with its real-time tracking of GPS-enabled buses and matatus and its use of your location to provide information on the closest stops and which routes ply them, it could turn out to be a big hit of 2014.

It will be a while before every Nairobian is able to benefit from the imaginary scenario described above. However, as the government, the private sector, and academia are all working around a similar vision, things are looking positive for Nairobi's digital transport revolution.