Julius Mwelu | The Disintegration of the Matatus

Country of origin: Kenya
Project location: Kenya
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2011

 Julius Mwelu, a Kenyan  photographer, explores scars left  by electoral violence in Kenya and recent government regulations that have lead to the unemployment of disenfranchised youth. Mwelu focuses particularly on the difficult-­‐to-­‐penetrate world of "matatus," 14 -­‐seater taxis in Nairobi. The Kenyan government recently announced they would no longer license matatus, leaving a population of young, at-­‐risk taxi drivers without steady employment.


On February 24, 2012, EF photographer Julius Mwelu spoke with Joan Clos, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) on the planned phrasing out of matatus in Nairobi, Kenya. Mwelu was born in Mathare, Kenya, in one of the world's largest slums. Mwelu and Clos considered the costs and advantages of phrasing out matatus.

JULIUS MWELU: Can you give our readers a little bit of history behind the matatu industry, and the relevance of matatus in traditional Kenya transportation?

JOAN CLOS: Matatus are main form of transport for the majority of Kenyans commuting to work in and between cities. They are minibuses of 14 seats and get their name from their original fare which was three (tatu) shillings. Despite their dominance they are privately owned and the fare fluctuates depending on demand.

MWELU: Why is the government trying to phase out the matatus?

CLOS: As part of the Vision 2030 plan for Nairobi, the Government of Kenya is trying to slowly phase out the matatus and replace them with a system of larger buses. This is mostly due to congestion on the streets and the pollution that having a large number of vehicles creates. It is hoped that with fewer vehicles, each carrying a larger number of people, that traffic in the city will be eased.

Sustainable urban mobility is the key to a successful city and the success of productive relationships in cities is totally linked to mobility. Severe traffic jams occur daily in Nairobi and cost the economy millions of shillings every day in lost revenue. UN-Habitat supports the efforts by the Government of Kenya to find a solution to this problem.

MWELU: What actions have the Kenyan government taken to phase out the matatus?

CLOS: The Government of Kenya has started to plan the areas that the matatus will no longer operate in. There will be some cases where they may continue to be the most convenient method of transport and will therefore remain. For example in very dense areas in the city centre where larger buses cannot travel may be one such area.

MWELU: In 2003 new safety implementations were imposed on matatus. Why after all these new rules, is the Kenyan government still trying to phase out matatus?

CLOS: Safety is one important aspect of public transport and all citizens should be safe and have the opportunity to travel on affordable transport means. However, there are other factors that would have come into the decision, such as traffic congestion, efficiency and pollution, and the Government clearly felt that they could implement a preferable system.

From experience we see that there are three key features to future urban mobility. First, mobility plans must be integrated within the overall urban plans for a city. This is critical because all too often planning and transport departments do not work together. The second feature is to look at how urban plans can decrease the demand for motorized mobility. Unfortunately, most cities have inherited a system of zoning which results in a high travel demand. The new pattern is to encourage mixed use planning which can minimize the need for travel. The third feature is the need to ensure the political and financial commitment for mobility infrastructure, including high capacity systems, which are environmentally friendly.

MWELU: Currently the matatus industry employs 160,000 workers, many of whom have few other employment opportunities. What will become of these individuals once their profession is phased out?

CLOS: Unfortunately unemployment among the youth in Kenya, as in many other countries, is high. However, in addition to its importance as an urban service, the transport infrastructure and service sector itself is a significant generator of wealth and employment. If the process is properly managed the new transportation system will generate tens of thousands of jobs while at the same time contributing to the overall productivity of the city itself, which in turn creates more opportunities for all.

MWELU: Do you believe the preservation of the matatu industry is possible? Do you believe it is important, and why.

CLOS: UN-Habitat promotes well-planned mass-transit systems within and between cities and towns that are environmentally friendly, secure and affordable. If the current system in any country does not provide this then it is vital, not only for the public and the environment, but also for the economy, that the Government seriously considers working alternative mass-transit systems into its medium to long term urban development plans. Transport, which goes hand in hand with productivity and efficiency in cities, must be at the heart of urban planning.