Don‘t imitate New York. Fix Nairobi


Wishing Nairobi were more like the affluent cities of the world is good and expected. However, I would urge caution when dealing with best practice vignettes and success stories . The major lesson from examples such as Mr. Penalosa of Bogota and Mr. Bloomberg of New York, is that people-friendly projects are, by nature, inclusive. They flow from a political decision to invest in all urban residents, rich and poor alike, and not from urban envy, or a mere desire to imitate more affluent cities.

Many cities we may seek to emulate have long taken care of both the physical fundamentals, including firefighting, building safety and sewerage, and the political fundamentals, including finances, fair electoral representation of urban residents and executive powers of elected officials. If these things are not in place, then Bloomberg-type inspirational leadership becomes almost impossible to achieve.

Nairobi, viewed through this lens has a wonderful opportunity, through the election of a governor with executive powers and some presumably predictable financing, to effect change. Making this city more liveable and people-friendly involves, first, including the less fortunate in improvements of fire safety, living conditions, transportation, education and wherever else the city has a mandate, and second, increasing public participation and transparency in governance.

We should ensure adequate firefighting for the whole city, because we believe that Eastlands matters as much as Westlands, that safety from fire in 2012 should not depend on our ability to afford G4S. Our firefighting mess is a shame and this city’s business potential, much of which lies east of Tom Mboya Street, shall continue to smoulder until fire is effectively controlled.

Whereas the loudest complaints about our traffic jams typically come from drivers and and matatu users, 47% of this city’s commuters walk to work. In addition to buses and trains, an adequate public transportation system should specifically target this group with safe bicycle paths closed to cars, throughout the city, because they also matter. Similarly, we should provide parks in Kayole, South B, Embakasi and elsewhere not just because New York is providing parks, but because we do, or ought to recognize, that every Nairobian is deserving of green space, yet hardly any can routinely access Karurua Forest, the Nairobi Aboretum or Uhuru Park, which looks rather dry at the moment.

Creating people-friendly cities also goes beyond revitalizing town centres to attract creatives a la Richard Florida, whose name is rarely mentioned in Kenyan newspapers, but whose creative class theory is writ large in planned developments such as Tatu City and Konza. To invest tax shillings in the less fortunate represents significant government spending, and so a leader is required who believes that all Nairobians are worthy of investments in basic livability and can make a case for such spending in the face of more fiscally conservative opposition. Such a leader should also be willing to take on those who profit from our shortcomings in public infrastructure in defence of the public interest.

Transparent governance, the other requirement of a liveable city, does not just involve public participation as set out in the Cities and Urban Areas Act of 2011, but also the right to observe local government as it executes substantive business. In Nairobi, the public is not allowed to witness municipal decision-making around development control, zoning and other otherwise public decisions. If Parliament allows the public to observe debate and motions, if the courts allow the public to observe acquittals and convictions, then city hall should allow the public to observe zoning, development, and other approvals. The effective Official Plan and Zoning By-law, which currently decide how land should be used in Nairobi, ought to be on the website of the Nairobi City Council today.

A city that values all its residents, cares for the most vulnerable, and is not afraid to transact business in the public eye is far more likely to be people-friendly. We must learn this lesson if we are to successfully emulate Enrique Penalosa and Michael Bloomberg. Merely wanting a better city won’t get us there.


At this rate, G4S should levy taxes


Jeff Koinange interviews an eclectic range of guests on his K24 show, Capital Talk, and I watch it when I get the chance.  At the climax of each episode, his Bench catches fire. ‘Somebody call G4S!’, he goes. It’s a great line. It captures brilliantly Nairobians’ lack of faith in their taxpayer-funded fire service, and I have always wondered what Nairobi Town Clerk Phillip Kisia thinks of it. Maybe he should tell Jeff that on his next visit to the Bench.

Currently, there is one fire station in Industrial Area, and another opposite the old Nation Centre, very close indeed to the new Nation Centre. Lucky Nationeers. Those of us who live and work farther away from either must hope the firefighters arrive in time. Nairobi’s firefighting capacity has not kept pace with the growth of the city, and so not only is the fire station distant from the majority of urban dwellers, but also from the locations where most fires break out, going by recent events.

It is not clear whether there are serious plans to set up another fire station, or to ensure that should a fire break out in the outer reaches of Nairobi, the fire department will arrive in time. The fires, it appears, will keep breaking out, and the fire department will keep having to lose precious time crossing the city, arriving only to aid salvage efforts long after the fire has prevailed. Promoting Konza City is all very well, but the benefits of an additional fire station would be rather more immediate. If not, then perhaps G4S should levy taxes, so we know where we stand.

Matatu sector should show leadership


Last month’s NTV Business Agenda brought together myriad players in the public transportation industry. Partly because of Wallace Kantai’s lively style, interesting insights percolated on the recent confrontation between the government and matatu operators. The players evidently understood where public transportation fell short in Nairobi, and also showed empathy with the wider needs of the urban community.

A number of solutions were floated. The Minister for Transport suggested dedicated lines for buses, Dennis Kashero of RVR asserted that rail was an investment opportunity as well as a way to meet corporate social responsibility needs, and the Nairobi Town Clerk Mr. Phillip Kisia spoke in support of creating substations from which large buses would ferry passengers around the CBD. Good ideas all.

Mr. Mukabanah, Chairman of the KEPSAH Transport Sector Board, made one of the evening’s most interesting contributions. He described Nairobi’s public transportation system as paratransit, which he panned as informal and prone to illegality, and decried the job losses which externally-assembled 14-seaters cause. This conversation about matatus, he also noted, had left out the 47% of Nairobi residents who walk to work for lack of bus fare.

Mr. Aligula from KIPPRA criticized the government for not having a public transportation framework. He emphasized the futility of expanding roads to ameliorate congestion and noted that buses were necessary even with a commuter rail system. Mr. Graeme Reid added his experiences from Johannesburg, where commuter taxis had filled a gap left by the apartheid government’s neglect of public transportation. He was categorical that development planning must be integrated with transport, and faulted developers in Kenya for not accounting for transportation in their planning.

Notwithstanding all these, it was Mr. Simon Kimutai of the Matatu Welfare Association who cheered me the most. He conceded that a desire to phase out 14-seaters was not unreasonable for Nairobi, even while defending their use in intercity transportation. Going into the show, I expected he and Mr. Mbugua to defend the matatu industry staunchly since they depend on it, but their contribution on the night did them a lot of credit.

It seems to me that they were not, and are not, against the phasing-out of 14-seater matatus in Nairobi. The Minister for Transport, if he has not already done so, should be swallowing up this concession and discussing other sweeteners including financing aimed at easing the transition to larger buses. In return, he should ask for clean combustion, improvements in body design to improve comfort and safety, one-strike-and-you-are-towed traffic violations, heavy fines for refuelling with the engine running, among others.

The only omission from an otherwise high quality panel was a representative from the local matatu manufacturing industry. I am not referring to the firms which create the engine and the chassis, but the local body builders. Some of the best known are Labh Singh Harnam Singh (LSHS), Banbros, Kenya Coach Industries (KCI), DODI Autotech, Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM), and 2M Autotech.

These are the people who design and build what we know as the matatu, who create those steel seat – frames with sharp edges, the seats at the back where long-legged people just can’t fit and seats above the rear wheel well that leave your feet squashed when you alight. They could have shed light on the opportunities and constraints of delivering efficient, socially responsive public transportation on a matatu platform, what plans they have to use technology towards streamlining customer service and creating more comfortable vehicles, and what they see as the grand vision for matatu transportation in Kenya.

I also sought and missed concrete evidence of steps that the matatu sector is itself taking to make their drivers more law- abiding and their services more regular and consistent. Utter disregard for the law, inconsistent service delivery, and unwillingness to accord commuters any comfort whatsoever persist in Nairobi. Those big buses can’t come fast enough.

The Awkwardly Truthful AMREF Billboards


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.

Matatus should look at themselves


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.

Into 2012 – and still no plaque!


Happy New(ish) Year, Dear Nairobians!

Unlike past years, I am cautiously optimistic about Nairobi City Hall in 2012. While there is always something to complain about, as there should be, the occupants of what is now 5 City Hall Way have actually done some very decent work in the CBD.

For starters, the Aga Khan Walk has been greatly expanded along Co-op Bank House onto Moi Avenue, which significantly improves pedestrian connectivity throughout. The red brick walkways along Kenyatta Avenue should reduce pedestrian congestion along the storefronts while exposing the colonial war memorials, the better to appreciate youthful Kenyans who were trafficked to the front line of a war that was none of their business.

There has also been a welcome widening of sidewalks, trees, benches, and use of one-way streets to limit vehicular traffic in areas of high pedestrian density and shopping precincts, such as Mama Ngina Street.

You may be saying, “Yeah, so what?”, but they are good changes, and when people put effort in and get things right we should acknowledge as much, before moving to what’s not been gotten right. To wit:

Tom Mboya

The Tom Mboya Statue

The Tom Mboya statue, erected only a few feet from the spot where he was assassinated, and the Tom Mboya Walk connecting Tom Mboya Street and Moi Avenue, have increased walkability and connectivity, created additional marketing space and added great character to what was previously a bland, motorized stretch of concrete. To improve it further, the lights around the statue should be kept on the whole night. The additional illumination would improve the lighting of what is a heavily trafficked area after nightfall, while enhancing the role of the installation in evoking perpetual memory. Given current nightly expenses on streetlights, the additional expense should be manageable.

What has not been gotten right is the incompleteness in evidence to all who visit the statue. Shujaa Tom Mboya was unveiled last October to great fanfare by both the President and the Prime Minister of Kenya, yet the interpretive plaque meant to tell the world just how heroic the man was is still missing, almost three months later. The wall surrounding the installation, to pile on further, is only finished on the outside. Such sub-optimal workmanship must disappoint those who come to see it, and if you have been there, you know there are many.

The Great Unveiling

The Great Unveiling. (Credit: nairobipictures)

Still no plaque.

One can understand that time constraints may have prevented completion before the official unveiling. Yet the outstanding work could easily have been completed afterwards. Is there nobody at City Hall, or in the Government at large,  sufficiently embarrassed that Kenyans coming from all over the country are viewing incomplete work? It may sound pedantic, but when you create public art at taxpayer expense, to be seen and appreciated by the public, then surely impressions are everything.

Transporting the Police


Police cars are a fixture in most countries in the world,  ever-present, always cruising the streets and highways, looking for trouble. With the name “POLICE” painted in large bold letters, these cars announce the instant and constantly mobile presence of the law on sight.  Not always in Kenya, however.

What I saw today is unlikely to burnish the reputation of the police as credible first responders.  There was a matatu, and in that matatu a suspect, being transported to the police station. The plain clothes officer did not attempt to commandeer the vehicle; no, it filled up as usual, with the officer presumably paying the freight for himself and his law-breaking cargo. Every ten shillings counts in this business.

On the way, fellow passengers were treated to a narrative of the wrongs committed by the suspect, a man who from the dried blood on his face and clothes, had already received some ferocious retribution, and who from his silent demeanor, either knew he had met his match, or was just relieved to be in custody. One cannot help but surmise that had the matatu strike materialized, and not fizzled out, the law in this case would never have taken its rightful course. When it was badly needed today, there was no police car.