BY KENYATTA OTIENO
There was a high school culture in western Kenya that hyped the bus one boarded to school. The hype was on speed and music that played in the bus. This was connected to those who came from beyond the region then known as “us guys” because the majority did not have to board these busses to the surrounding areas. In my time, Shaggy Bus Company operating from Country Bus Park popularly known as Machakos Airport was the toast. The busses were named after the popular figures of that time. There were other busses from companies that did not have as many fleets as Shaggy.
A few years down the line, Shaggy was no more. The story replicates itself in Kisii Express, Matongo Bus, Eldoret Express among others. All these companies operated from ‘Machakos Airport’ to Western Kenya. Akamba Bus Service, which operated in East Africa went down as well after serving the region for decades from their Kitui town and Kitui Road base in Industrial Area. There are many examples I can give but let us stick to these for now.
I want also to look at bus companies operating from Coastal City of Mombasa into the hinterland. For as long as I can remember, Coast Bus Ltd. has outlived many public transport companies. The others like, Modern Coast and Mash came in later and they are doing fine as the western Kenya companies go down one after the other as new ones come up. What is the secret of these Coastal companies?
The Coastal people are known to be lazy with a penance for comfort beyond work. This may be due to the effect of humidity that can stupefy a visitor to the coast. On the flipside, the people are amiable and hospitable which works for great customer care. The other influence is Islam, which abhors short cuts and greed. Cap this with experience developed in long distance trucks and logistics business and you get why the coastal bus companies beat the upcountry players hands down.
This brings me to an experience I had recently sending a parcel to rural Bondo, a road only served by Eldoret Express from Nairobi. I encountered some young men purporting to be the bus agents at Country Bus Park. I paid the agreed fee hoping to receive a call the next day that my goods had arrived. The call I got was informing me that the goods were not paid for, so I have to pay again.
This is where Coastal bus companies have an edge. However small the outfit, they will find an office in downtown Nairobi to operate from while most of upcountry companies operate from the field at Country Bus Park. This leaves these upcountry companies at the mercy of cartels that operate with a disorder of impunity at Country Bus Park. The owners may not get all the proceeds unless they are products of the same disorder that understand it well.
The other factor is greed. Looking at busses from the two sides, one gets to see the difference. The coastal busses are done for comfort, with two passengers on both sides while the upcountry busses have three passengers squeezed on one side. The seats are at a right angle, which leaves you fatigued at the end of your journey. The coastal busses will provide refreshments while their staffs are well dressed in uniform and courteous.
What the upcountry bus owner saves in the discomfort and disorder ends up with the cartels. This is why the busses hardly last to make a profit. I believe the owners only labour to pay loans and call it a day, then another new player is seduced into the field and the cycle continues. There is no storage of operational history, as every player falls off to other ventures. The touts who have no contract with anybody at the park fade into oblivion as new, younger, more energetic generation replaces them. New bus owners come in to reap what they can then lay off their busses when repairing them does not make economic sense.
The up-country public transport players may be attracted to the allure of quick money in gashes but the production side is not sustainable. Because the employees know they will only earn if the bus makes the trip, the bus will go for routine service if there is no other option. If it can make the trip however risky it is in the long run, it will be sent on the road. The Coastal bus companies, because of well-planned and set out schedules, are able to keep their busses well serviced and maintained thus the longer they survive on the road.
Opening an office uptown (with reference to Country Bus Park) may appear expensive in the short term but is crucial for the long-term survival of fleets. So the point of departure is in projection. The up-country busses will sprint out of gas while the coastal busses will invest in going the long haul. In this case, the Coastal busses model wins.
The up-country busses are products of short distance ‘matatu’ industry while Coastal busses operators are off shoots from long distance truck transport business. That is what separates the mindset of the two players in the same industry. The up-country bus operators need to shift their mindset. Meanwhile, Nairobi County can learn from Ubungo Bus Park in Dar-es-Salaam on how to run a bus park.