Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Awkwardly Truthful AMREF Billboards

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I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but when I saw the billboards recently erected by AMREF in Nairobi , I did a double-take.

Duh!! No, wait, it's in Kisumu.

The two I have seen are erected along Waiyaki Way and Moi Avenue. According to these billboards, the Flying Doctor Service is your only hope in case of a relative’s heart attack or premature labour. That does not ring true in Nairobi, and the billboards do not make sense until you read the fine print at the top. Turns out the heart attack occurred in Kisumu, and the premature labour was  in Mogori.

So, the point is made that health care in Migori and Kisumu is not up to snuff. There is nothing wrong in saying that, it’s the reality of this country. Why then are ‘Kisumu’ and ‘Migori’ rendered in fine print on the billboard? Maybe the Flying Doctors understand that the good people of Kisumu and Migori do not appreciate their soiled hospital linen being disinfected in public, soiled though it may be. I have not traveled there recently, but I am almost certain there are no billboards in Kisumu and Migori today reminding residents that the Flying Doctors are the only hope they’ve got. But that message must get out somehow, and these billboards seem to be the politically correct workaround AMREF has chosen.

Contrast this craven advertising with the proud portrayal of Kisumu City in a popular DHL newspaper ad. ‘A contract leaves Kisumu City and hours later, touches down in New York’, goes the tag-line. When you put the two ads together, you get a forward – thinking, globally connected Great Lakes city doubling as a healthcare backwater. Which ad portrays the real Kisumu? If the AMREF people think theirs does, they are being very tentative about it.

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Matatus should look at themselves

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When the new Konza Technology City gets built, will public transportation be based on matatus? I would have to say ‘yes’.  Yes, despite the ubiquitous campaign heralding a Silicon Savannah with world-class amenities. Yes, despite Mugo Kibati harrumphing on TV about the necessity of global standards.  Yes, because that is the easy way out. The matatu industry has less to do with efficient transportation than business opportunities where the travelling public are a captive market, but they are loud and entrenched, and that is reason enough to expect their continued presence.

Matatu transportation is characterized by considerable creativity and risk – taking, inconsistent execution and flagrant rule – breaking. In addition to the aggressive driving that is now de rigueur if one is to get anywhere, matatus and matatu – style driving have long meant the destruction of public walkways, futile attempts to escape traffic jams leading to longer journeys, and inconsistent stopping, just about anywhere. At rush hour only the fittest commuters stand a chance . Many matatus consistently refuel with the engine running because, apparently, they are in a hurry.

Whatever accusations can be leveled at them, the old KBS buses were reliable. They were uncomfortable, packed, and hot if you were in front, near the engine, but they kept time, or tried to.  The drivers were disciplined, not stopping just anywhere. They issued monthly bus passes. They carried more people.

Recent calls by the Matatu Welfare Association for 14 – seater vehicles to be retained and accommodated in new transportation infrastructure do nothing to advance the cause of decongesting the city. The 14 – seater payload is highly inefficient. There are other requests matatu owners could yet make of the government, such as financing to enable a transition to larger vehicles, but they seem unwilling to go there. They also seem to have offered no concessions, yet with larger vehicle operators ready to capitalize should 14 – seaters withdraw services per their threat, and the government planning transit reform, their position is tenuous.

The phased switch to longer minibuses constitutes only a partial nod to the wider transportation problem. Much more needs to be done.

First, there must be an alternative to matatus in the market to incentivize better driving from them.  A choice between Sacco A and Sacco B in the current regime is really not a choice. We cannot hope to ameliorate urban congestion if we do not have adequate bus capacity seating at least 50 passengers and allowing for standing.

Second, urban transportation should employ technology to support governance goals such as social inclusion, safety, accessibility and environmental protection. Innovations already in the market include clean combustion, buses that ‘kneel’ to allow the wheelchair-bound to board, remote monitoring of vehicle locations using GPS to curb speeding, radio communication, voice announcement of destinations in real time which helps the visually impaired, and automatic, driver – controlled doors. At present, only buses can deliver these things.

How do we move from the aggressive minibus to the responsive, well – driven, professionally – run transit bus?  How do we get from the vestiges of KBS (Kenya Bus Service) to the promised land of KBS (Kigali Bus Service) where they now carry smartcards?  Matatu operators seem oblivious to the desire of commuters for better services, and it is difficult to envision matatu – driven transportation reform when they have long thrived on chaos.

The Matatu industry must  deliver better services and work hard to rectify its long – standing failings, lest it be overtaken by technology and urban commuter preferences. Regard for customer service, safety, and social responsibility would do much to guarantee matatus a bright future in the Nairobi of today or the Konza of tomorrow.