- Some years ago LCD/LED screens and top-dollar entertainment systems were standard in areas with tough competition such as Buru Buru.
- Some matatus use the outside screens to run advertisements at a fee, while some become billboards during election campaign time.
Matatus that play popular music, or nganyas as they are better known, have become a common feature in the city. With music blaring from giant speakers, each one is louder than the next, as well as brighter and more colourful.
As the fight for passengers goes a notch higher, so do the standards of the vehicles. Some years ago LCD/LED screens and top-dollar entertainment systems were standard in areas with tough competition such as Buru Buru.
Others came with slick paint jobs, free WiFi and flat screen TVs, besides fancy names. ‘Batman’, which operates the Ongata Rongai route, has a 54-inch screen mounted at the front of the passenger cabin as well as 14, 24-inch and 14-inch screens behind all the seats.
On the Kasarani route is ‘Slam Dunk’ belonging to Hannover Trans. Apart from a glossy paint job on the outside, passengers also have free WiFi, CCTV surveillance cameras, a fan for when it gets hot and many flat screen TVs both inside and outside the vehicle.
Metropolitan managed to track down the vehicle.
“The vehicle has a live DJ who mixes music and plays songs requested by the passengers,” said an enthusiastic passenger on the queue at the former Tuskys Beba Beba supermarket in the central business district.
As I made to board the vehicle, a tout famously known as Odu stopped me to ask if I had booked a seat. I shake my head in shock.
“Sorry, I have to confirm if there is an extra seat,” he said as he dashed to talk to a tall, light-skinned man standing close to some stalls at the stage.
Surprised, I went to confirm that the matatu was number 17B plying the Kasarani-Mwiki route. With the board at the front displaying the fare and routes, I thought Odu had misunderstood me. But I was wrong.
“Sorry, we are full. You need to reserve a seat prior to travelling,” said the tout when he returned. It took the intervention of the manager, Charles Warui, to get me a seat.
The manager’s number was displayed on the inside for ease of booking. The words ‘Slam Dunk’ were inscribed in fancy graphics on the back of the matatu.
There were inspirational quotes from famous personalities in graffiti as well as pictures of football stars and musicians.
At the door was a clear sign: “Parental advisory; loud music.”
A 60-inch screen was fitted at the front of the matatu, almost covering the entire area.
Above it, the word “WiFi” plus the password clearly displayed.
I sat close to a window next to a tall guy sporting dreadlocks, a blue blazer, white cotton shirt and blue velvet shoes, which he displayed by stretching his legs on the aisle.
In less than five minutes, the minibus was full. The driver jumped in and brought the vehicle to life with a loud roar coming from the engine before he got it moving forward.
As always, there was traffic getting out of town. Unexpectedly, the ceiling changed colour – from glowing gold to light blue.
There was almost 40 metres of sparkling lights around the edges of the interior.
Mr Warui, who was standing in the aisle, bent close to my ear and told me the roof changes colour in the dark.
“We strive to offer our customers the best at the usual cost. Competition is very high even though 80 per cent of city residents use matatus. There are as many options as customers so you need to season your services well to make the best taste,” he said.
The eight screens played a music mix from selector ‘Stinger’, who sat next to the driver and connected his gadgets to the android music system fitted in the matatu.
Rick Ross’ ‘Trap Trap Trap!’ hip-hop song blared through the many speakers with an intense base that penetrated my heart until I could feel the throb.
The tout danced to the vibes while passengers bobbed their heads to the beats.
As soon as we got out of the city centre, the tout moved from seat to seat picking Sh100 from the passengers. The maximum fare for Kasarani is Sh80, but no one was complaining.
My dreadlocked neighbour, Brian Okoth, was quick to explain that the good service was the reason why passengers willingly paid the fare.
“The experience is more than just a ride from work to home. It is truly a party on wheels,” he said.
Having a live DJ in their matatu is a win-win as the DJ markets himself while the matatu owners make more money.
DJ Stinger does not charge the matatu for his services.
“Since Stinger came on board, we have been receiving more customers. That is why we started making bookings,” said Peter Mbugua, the driver.
He uses controls on the dashboard to shift between real-time, live video feeds of the road ahead and booming music videos.
At the front end of the bus was a CCTV camera trained on the passengers; a screen showing what was happening was fitted next to the driver.
Another camera was placed at the front facing outside and a screen showing what was happening outside was fixed close to the door.
I was able to monitor the movement of people and cars outside from the comfort of my seat without turning my head or peeping through the window.
“All the CCTV cameras are fitted to enhance the security of passengers. The driver monitors what is happening inside the vehicle,” said Warui.
The matatu industry has undergone an evolution over the years, with stakeholders in the transport industry taking innovations more seriously.
From the traditional seven-aside matatus to the current version of public transport, the vehicles have literally undergone a metamorphosis. And there are people willing to pay the high cost of changing trends.
“The reconstruction and customisation of a new vehicle costs at least Sh2 million,” said Warui.
The matatus usually come from the stripped chassis of a new truck to create extended grids on the inside and ex-skeletons and panels on the exterior to the desired shape.
Sometimes, a vehicle can take the shape of an animal, like the Panda matatu in Ongata Rongai, or Giraffe.
Artists adorn the body of the vehicle with diverse and unique graffiti ranging from pictures of musicians, social, religious and political icons, football stars as well as emerging trends in the fashion arena.
There are also pictures of animals and funny quotes like, ‘Sorry you woke up late’ on the back – a change from the old messages that devalued women.
The screens facing outside provide entertainment for pedestrians and other people outside the matatus, especially those caught up in traffic jams.
Some matatus use the outside screens to run advertisements at a fee, while some become billboards during election campaign time.
‘Sparkles’, a matatu that is set to be launched next week following a redesign, will have a PlayStation inside available for customers seated in the front.
“’Sparkles’, which plies route 102 in Dagoretti, will have a PS4 on special days. But the fares will remain the same,” said Nick Bravo, an artist with an interest in matatus.