'Informal' transport sector workers in Eastern Africa. A perspective from the driver’s seat.

by Ahmed Salim

There is perhaps nothing that says urban East Africa than a daladala, matatu, boda boda and bajaj. These modes of transportation in the region are the most loved and hated aspects of living in East African cities but why do they even exist? None of the major cities in the Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) be it Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kampala or Dar es Salaam have a mass transit system to efficiently move hundreds of thousands of city residents around. Many researchers and analysts of urban planning and infrastructure point to the absence of an efficient public transportation system as the main cause of congestion, accidents and incessant traffic jams. The vacuum left by the lack of an official public transportation system was filled by the informal transportation sector. 

The relationship between the drivers and crew – collectively defined as informal transport sector workers since most work on a casual basis – and their employers, clients and law enforcement officials is a complicated one at best. While they offer an essential service, they also suffer from a very negative reputation. The broader social attitude towards the way they do their work is one of disdain and disrespect. Indeed, given that they seem to flout the law at every turn, they are considered to be just slightly better than petty criminals. However, until very recently, their voices have hardly been heard. They have had no ‘right of reply’ in the court of public, policy and political opinion. The lives of matatu or daladala drivers are perspectives that are not well known due either to the silence of the drivers or an established sentiment amongst the public that these people are not worth listening to. 

The Al-Jazeera documentary and ongoing blog covered by James Kariuki, a matatu driver, has sparked an interesting debate on the lives and challenges that people in the matatu industry face. There has not been a significant amount of literature covering the challenges and livelihoods that the people behind the wheel face in Nairobi. What type of living conditions do these drivers and workers go through? Is urban transportation their way of being resilient to their poverty stricken livelihoods? What can be done to improve their conditions and incomes? Would the establishment of official urban transportation methods disrupt their livelihoods and have them descent to even more poverty and inequality?

Many of us know what the perception and views are towards these drivers. They make driving and navigating the cities of Nairobi, Kampala, and Dar es Salaam impossible. They cause road congestion, accidents, and due to their sheer unpredictability can cause road fatalities. The most common solution, of course, is to abolish this informal transportation sector and institute a “formal” and “efficient” mode of transportation. 

However, it’s not that simple and such propositions inherently assume that those who are in the industry do not have their own solutions and recommendations to improving the system. The life of a matatu and daladala driver is one of a high-risk, low reward lifestyle.  Despite the public service that the industry provides, the risks are very high and dangerous and as much as they serve essential services for society they are alienated from it. This duality of being both included and excluded into society represents the dilemma faced every day by the drivers and crew from this informal transportation industry. 

The matatu and daladala industry highlight a class divide

If you look at the criticisms leveled at the matatu and daladala industry, you will notice that the majority of them stem from people who do not use them as a mode of transportation. The sentiments and feelings towards people in the industry, demonstrated by the descriptions earlier (criminals, reckless, hustlers etc.), come from middle to upper class people and the elites.  Most users of matatus and daladalas come from poorer neighborhoods and live a little outside the city. The condescending tone from people you speak with and diagnostic reports highlight the class divide that exists in urban circles as well as in the debate of urban transportation. 

The recommendations provided also come from the very same people who do not ride on the matatus and daladalas. Recommendations such as abolishing the industry all together and pinpointing them as the major cause of traffic jams, congestion and accidents are some examples of how a class divide is perpetuated. In stating that matatus and daladalas should be abolished there is an underestimation of what is to happen to these drivers and crewmembers after they abolish the industry. Most of the recommendations exclude those who work in the industry and by doing so will increase the unemployment numbers among the youth and isolate them more in poverty. Although they industry does not provide an essential service to the elites and upper class, the criticisms ignore the real value of these services to the poor and vulnerable who are the majority of those living in urban areas.  

An official urban transportation system could destroy informal transport workers’ livelihoods 

Many of the recommendations provided by the diagnostic studies claim that establishing an official urban transportation system complemented with metropolitan transport authorities is the solution to the challenges in urban transportation. Bus rapid transit (BRT) implementation and using larger buses instead of the minibuses used by the informal sector are also suggestions promoted by 'official' assessments of urban transportation. 'Large buses provide greater comfort, safety, and speed than minibuses, particularly on high density corridors, if they can be managed efficiently and sustainably. They also hold out the promise of relieving the growing congestion of African cities'. The assumption here is that these large buses will solve the majority of the problems but it isn’t clear whose problems it will solve and what is to become of the informal sector. Will they be brought into this new bus service? According to a report titled 'Sustainability Assessment of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System: The Case of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania' if daladala drivers were asked to join and drive a bus service owned by the government, 37% of them would decline the offer. 

In an attempt to improve the efficiency on aggregate of urban transportation, there is a very real risk that 'informal' transport providers will be completely cut out due to the tendency to exclude them from any discussion. This pattern is not dissimilar to the transport corridors where you can lower the aggregate costs to the economy but you raise it for the poor and vulnerable. A BRT system in Dar es Salaam or Nairobi or any of the major cities will surely kick the drivers out of the labor market. By establishing a formal bus system, there will be certain rules and regulations the drivers will have to follow. Who will teach and train them these rules? Most of the drivers do not have licenses, what will happen to them if they cannot pass a drivers test? The BRT report states that daladala drivers who have secondary education and above will be trained and recruited as BRT bus drivers. Most of the drivers only have a primary education.

Matatu drivers have solutions, but who is listening? 

After dissecting the blog of James Kairuki and the documentary on him, it is obvious that the people in this informal transportation industry understand the problems and have solutions. However, do people listen to them? Conventional wisdom has usually guided officials and transportation gurus to ignore the word of matatu and daladala drivers because they are uneducated thugs that have nothing of value to say.

The blog paints a different picture and shows that James and his colleagues do have solutions to improve their industry and urban transportation in general. A lot of their solutions correspond with official recommendations such as education campaigns about traffic rules and regulations, regulation and oversight focusing on data information, vehicle registration and establishing effective unions for the drivers. Streamlining the recommendations of the drivers in the industry with official policy may go a long way into improving the urban transportation system. More inclusion, less exclusion may be the best way to have the best solutions implemented. 


Download SID Trend Monitoring Report:  'Informal' transport sector workers in the GHEA. 


Photo: a_ncg/flickr