They came, they saw, they experienced, but will they conquer?

Nairobi has so far been the epitome of traffic menace. It is a niche that this city in the sun has coined for itself and unapologetically gripped firmly. The inhabitants have adopted this way of life, so has the government which has developed an ingrain habit of expanding the road network to encourage more cars into the already congested space.

The ‘highly adored’ city matatus are a force to reckon with in this East Africa’s largest industrial hub. However, their unreliable nature, insecurity, loud music and the poor culture they have adopted in the post millennial period doesn’t seem to make them much better than a moving rat house!

From rogue drivers to rascal touts, unreliable route maps to fluctuating fares, physical to verbal abuse, the city’s commuters have to wrestle with these challenges on a daily basis. The moral standards have derailed and continue to exhibit a downward trajectory. The society has lost its moral obligation and the gatekeepers and moral cops have grown to be toothless old dogs that can’t learn new tricks.

In all these mobility shenanigans, the physically disabled, women and children are the most vulnerable groups often deprived of their security as they commute using the Nairobi’s matatus. They at times grapple with dire situations like sexual abuse which may lead to mental and emotional torture.

Call to action

Boasting of a population of slightly over 4.3 million people, and being the United Nations headquarters in the African continent, the Nairobi’s mobility ecosystem ought to be very robust and one which takes into account the needs, especially those of the most vulnerable groups.

In the wake of all these confusion, there is need to leverage on the technological transformation to innovate around the Nairobi’s mobility space. Innovations have been credited for transforming the way humans operate by changing a system for better and more efficient modes of operations, while Technological innovations create a value chain that disrupts the way of doing things.

The University of Nairobi, via its technology hub, C4DLab in conglomeration of Aaalto University, digital taxi giant, Uber, Utopia and other mobility enthusiasts realized the need to fill the void created by the poor matatu culture in the Nairobi’s mobility ecosystem.

Leveraging on the University of Nairobi Innovation Fellowship, a challenge was thrown to a team of students from the University of Nairobi’s and Aalto University’s postgraduate schools. Guess the challenge, “Decongesting Nairobi, Kenya.”

Aalto in Nairobi

The team consisting of both the Finnish and Kenyan team present their preliminary findings to stakeholders.

While the term decongestion may seem ambiguous or even overambitious, the goal of the project is to impact the transport ecosystem in Nairobi. The project began way back in November, 2019 and obtained its climax in the latter days of February as the Aaalto team jetted into the country to join their Kenyan counterparts in the fieldwork activities.

Even though most of the members constituting the Finnish team had not previously visited the East African countries, this wasn’t time to enjoy the midmorning sun within this Southern hemisphere state. They had to hit the ground running if they were to collect substantial amount of data that would influence their decisions at the prototyping stage. But most importantly, they had to experience the chaotic matatu culture in Nairobi – plunge themselves into the shoes of their target users.

The team had objectives to identify key factors that affect the perception of women and children on safety and security, develop a framework to compare safety in Nairobi’s public transport, identify roles of operators and other transport stakeholders on the safety of women and children and to develop a typical user journey for a young female commuter.

It was two weeks of immense data gathering, two weeks of eating the Kenyan ugali, two weeks of enjoying the Kenyan sun, two weeks of being away from home, but when the two weeks elapsed and it was time to go back home, back to Finland, by the looks on their faces, it was a difficult moment for the Finnish team. Perhaps due to the COVID-19 alarm, maybe they fell in love with Africa as Martin Schubert would smile and say, I think I love this place!

They came, they saw, they experienced and now it came a time for them to go back and find ways of how to conquer the mobility challenge. Will they? Only time will tell.

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