|A matatu in Runda, Nairobi. (c) Jonathan Harris, 2009.|
There are a few reasons why this sort of program might be attractive.
1) Ease of transaction: who likes having to carry around all that cash? Kenya already has potential for a cashless economy with the ubiquity of mobile phones and m-pesa. (A recent article in Businessweek exaggerates the extent to which you can use it, but it makes it obvious that there is plenty of opportunity there).Why not push ahead and make the technological leap?
2) Cut down on corruption: Matatu riders complain about drivers and conductors jacking up prices for riders based on appearance, time of day, weather, and the like. There's also a persistent concern about crime and the organized crime groups that control some parts of the matatu sector, including mungiki. Paying conductors or drivers a set rate would prevent ripoffs and hostage-taking that happens when corruption and crime rule.
3) Allow the government to access data collected by Google. Learning frequency of ridership and route use has obvious benefits for transportation planning. In theory, it will also allow the government to more easily collect taxes to pay for road maintenance.
OK, great. So what's the problem? If you've ever lived in Kenya, you probably reacted to this with a mix of, "What?" "Hilarious." "No way." and deep suspicion.
First, it's not likely to make riding matatus all that much easier. As the article mentions, matatus are privately owned and operated and only loosely publicly regulated. The extent of public regulation really only extends as far as traffic laws (which are applied arbitrarily, in my experience). It will be nearly impossible to get all owner/operators on board. And on the customer/UX end, riders will have to go out of their way to get another card to top up at select entities--so far, it looks like the main retailer is Equity Bank and affiliates. Google seems to forget that people need to ride a bus and walk to get to these outlets. It's a pain. If they want to build their own e-payment service to compete with M-Pesa, at least make it incredibly easy to top up and use. **EDIT: It looks like you can use M-Pesa to top up your card. I still think it's a hassle to have to buy a separate card, but this is a little better than I imagined on first read.
In terms of regulating the wild west of crime and corruption in Kenya's transit sector, what's to stop operators from asking for more in cash? It's still off the books, and Kenya, despite reports to the contrary, is still very much a cash economy. The police are in on the corruption--particularly in traffic situations--so it seems even more unlikely that a card payment system will fix those problems as long as you can still give a cop kitu kidogo or, you know, a little chai.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, even though the matatu system is dysfunctional in many ways and clearly needs some sort of regulation and improvement**, it seems shortsighted to turn over the keys to regulation to a private company headquartered overseas. Here, Google could be acting like a foreign government providing aid--they want to collect the data, create a market and products that fit the data and are therefore irresistible because they are necessary, and then, presumably, resell that product back to the government that needs them most. Only in this case, they are operating without the government entirely because the system is already privatized.
As much as one can rightly criticize the Kenyan government for its many shortcomings, corruption, shortsightedness, and the like, setting up a system that perpetuates operation by and large outside of government control solidifies the privatized system and prevents any future good government from regulating the transport sector properly. A vote of no confidence in the Kenyan government is one thing--but stopping the much needed process of government regulation in the longer term is odious.
The technology and its potential to make life easier is tempting and exciting. But the libertarian-tinged ethos--and arrogance--of Silicon Valley can be a destructive force both at home and in the developing world.
* It's hard for me to avoid a little meta-commentary on Gettleman's word choice because his tendency toward verbal excess is nothing new. See, e.g. "[M]ost Rwandans are still peasants swinging muddy hoes," and the hyperbolic opener, "the battle for Kenya’s future may come down to Hitler versus Google." There's a reason my reporter buddy and I used to call him Jeff "crushed skulls" Gettleman. Feb 2, 2009: "[T]he Lord’s Resistance Army has machine guns, mortar bombs and a penchant for crushing skulls." Feb 6, 2009: "The Lord’s Resistance Army is now on the loose, moving from village to village, seemingly unhindered, leaving a wake of scorched huts and crushed skulls." And this quotation from his piece in Lapham's Quaterly: "At least there was still Nairobi, home to those Internet startups and investment banks housed in gleaming skyscrapers. But when I returned home, corpses with crushed skulls were sprawled in the street not far from the leafy reaches where I live." Oh, then there's his "Africa's Forever Wars" piece...(see commentary in the (still) fabulous Wronging Rights blog.)
**As far as orderliness goes, other countries in the region are worse. I remember on one of my first visits to Kenya after living in Tanzania for a year being completely shocked at how people actually formed queues to get on the bus. In Dar es Salaam, you might have to jump on through a back window to get a seat. No such thing as a queue!