Smart Matatu – Taming the Kenyan Public Transport Industry Using IOT


According to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), road accidents in Kenya claim up to 3,000 lives annually. 80 percent of the lives lost on the road, are caused by public service vehicles. Kenya’s public transport industry is run by the private sector and the government only comes in to regulate and oversee the industry (which they don’t do that well anyway).

Public Service Vehicles, commonly known as Matatus, are paced with rowdy and unruly drivers who pay little to no attention to the traffic rules. The government and other stakeholders have in the past tried to bring sanity to this industry by introducing cashless payments, the well-known Michuki rules and even trying to control the industry by making it mandatory for the matatus to be registered to a Sacco, all which have done little or nothing at all to bring sanity to this industry.

Echo Mobile, a Nairobi-based technology firm that builds and deploys mobile-first communication, interaction, research and management information tools, have developed a solution that they hope will tame the matatu industry. Echo, through their IOT (Internet of Things) focused platform, Echo Sense – an open source platform aimed at organisations wishing to augment programs and field activities with sensor data, have been testing the Smart Matatu app for a while now. Smart Matatu, uses sensors that are installed in the matatu to track the driver’s behaviour and give real-time feedback to the owners.

The Problem

In the Kenyan transport industry, owners and drivers enter into a bilateral informal contract with daily targets set by the owner and paid by the driver . This is to say, the driver is “leased” the matatu by the owner and the owner expects a certain amount of money at the end of the day. Failure to meet the set targets puts the drivers at a risk of taking a loss on the day’s work. Exceed them, and the driver takes home the profits after paying fuel and maintenance expenses. As a result, drivers are incentivized to drive recklessly and as fast as possible to complete more rounds (squads), generate more revenue on the day, and increase their margins. Not surprisingly, this leads to more accidents, with significant costs to public safety, and more damage to matatus, which ultimately fall to the owners. Even when accidents are avoided, owners have little to no visibility into the daily behavior of their drivers.

How Smart Matatu Works

Courtesy of Echo

Built on Echo Sense, the Smart Matatu system has been developed on behalf of a randomized controlled trial (RCT) designed by a research team from The University of California at Berkeley. Working with Echo, the team’s aim is to measure the effect on safety, productivity, and contracting when real-time driver and vehicle information is fed to owners.

The installation process involves an electrician installing the gadget into the Matatu dashboard while an enumerator conducts baseline surveys on the Matatu, Owner and Driver. As mentioned earlier, the system includes an in-vehicle sensor (with an in-built GPS, accelerometer and GSM) that monitors and reports the speed of the vehicle, hard braking, over accelerating, sharp turning, off-route driving, distance and other data to Echo Sense via GSM. Echo Sense collects and analyzes the data and then presents real time alerts to owners on the Smart Matatu application. The app can also be used to rate matatu drivers’ performance based on adherence to traffic rules, which is a great tool that can benefit all stakeholders of the public transport sector, especially to NTSA when it comes to determining good drivers and those whose licenses should be revoked.

in-vehicle sensor

At the end of the day, the drivers and owners are expected to complete a survey to provide more information on for purposes of the RCT. The drivers use Echo’s sms platform to complete the survey while the matatu owners use the Smart Matatu app. Both parties receive an incentive of KSH.40 worth of airtime on completion of the survey.

Smart Matatu is currently installed in close to 300 matatus around Nairobi, and Echo says that so far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the cooperative societies (SACCOs) that the matatu owners belong to. The pilot program, has been going on for a little over 6 months and they have only focused on 14-seater matatus plying the Rongai-CBD and Kibera-CBD routes.

Challenges Faced

Courtesy of Echo

At the beginning of the RCT, Echo had opted to use android phones to track the movements of the vehicles, however this proved to be a task as the phones were not designed for such environments and would switch off at random times and often failed to work after a while. For this reason, the team decided to switch to a dedicated in-vehicle sensor, and they have not looked back since then.

James Mwangi, the Project Officer, also noted that their biggest challenge has been training drivers and matatu owners on how to properly use the platform. For instance, some drivers would fill in the survey that they put fuel worth “3k” for the day, instead of writing the full amount as KSH.3,000. They also mentioned that most matatu owners, despite having smartphones, had little knowledge on installing an using apps.

Way Forward

James Mwangi (left) and Boris Maguire (right)

After the research period comes to an end sometime this year, Echo plans to commercialize the Smart Matatu as stand-alone product running on the Echo Sense platform. According to the project lead, Boris Maguire, they are looking to partner with insurance companies, taxi companies and matatu SACCOs who will then push their clients to install the devices on their vehicles.

Boris claims that the competitive advantage that Smart Matatu has against current offerings, is their focus on safety, and productivity. Other gadgets provide GPS location and speed information and even allow the owners to remotely switch off their vehicles. Smart Matatu however, is not just meant to track the speed and location of the matatu, but it is meant to be a tool through which owners and drivers can both benefit. The owners can have more control over what the drivers are doing, and the drivers can get better incentives for their day’s work without compromising on safety.