The extant old matatus of Eastleigh still revving into fortunes

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Despite years of forces of modernization in Nairobi, and subsequent investment in modernization of public service vehicles, old matatus are a common feature on the roads. Safari Njema sought to find out the old trick that keeps an old matatu new.

By Joseph Maina

For a million shillings, Mr Yusuf Jimale purchased his first matatu- a second hand 25-seater- in 2002. This was followed by another 25-seater second-hand matatu in late 2004, which he purchased for Ksh850, 000.

He signed the two vehicles up in the Eastleigh Sacco and today, he looks back at a long period of handsome returns from the two vehicles. “Each vehicle earns me a clean Ksh5000 every day,” he told Safari Njema.

“This is after deducting all the expenses – fuel, salaries, and any miscellaneous expenses.” With such handsome returns, Yusuf comfortably rakes in Ksh 200,000 a month from both matatus.

Such have been the fortunes of this 40-year-old entrepreneur, who takes pride in some of his achievements in life, thanks to the matatu investments. He has been able to buy prime land and build one house for himself and another for his parent, with more real estate investments planned for the future. At the time Yusuf purchased the vehicles, both were at least eight years old.

In effect, the two matatus are over two decades old, but still fit as fiddles. The Eastleigh route is one of the shorter routes from town, covering just about 5KM from the city centre.

The fares average twenty shillings if you travel by the older matatus, and from the twenty shillings charged, a matatu is able to build up a healthy return each day. It takes a number of factors to guarantee the longevity of a matatu, particularly in a competitive environment like Nairobi. First of all, it depends on the driver, Yusuf said.

“The secret in managing a matatu for many years lies in having a good driver.” He has two drivers per vehicle. The drivers hit the road at 3 am, when they fetch market people with their produce from Huruma and take them to the city.

By 7am, the vehicle has made almost Ksh3000. From then, the vehicle plies its main route from Eastleigh to town. From 9am, the vehicle mostly handles the hawkers, who commute between Eastleigh and the city centre, and the people who visit Eastleigh for shopping.

“The vehicles start work at 3am, and go on for the day, ending at just after 9pm,” Yusuf said. A good driver understands the nature of his customers, and knows when and where to get them.

And after many years of serving the communities in its route, the vehicle eventually earns the trust of the commuter, and in the end, becomes the choice means of transport for some especially the market people.

Routine maintenance involves replacing the oil at regular intervals, after every two weeks at most. One must also check on water, at least once a day. As far as Yusuf is concerned, there is no such thing as a matatu that is too old to function. “A vehicl e doesn’t grow dysfunctional with age,” he said.

“I know of many business partners who operate these contraptions with great success. It all depends on how well you manage it.” “The shelf life of a matatu depends on the driver and the matatu’s owner”, he added.

A constant threat to the peace of mind of the owner of an old matatu is the police. According to Yusuf, the police are known to target old vehicles when checking for road worthiness, especially during their routine crackdowns in the city.

It comes with costs, which include the time lost when a vehicle is apprehended, and also the financial cost that may arise in case you need to bail out your vehicle. With a phone call to a business partner, Yusuf was able to demonstrate that it is possible to purchase a 25-seater second-hand matatu for Ksh570, 000.

Yusuf is all praises for an old matatu, which he says is a viable business tool that can provide reasonable and consistent returns if maintained well. He recently sold off one and purchased a brand new matatu, a 33-seater, which cost more than Ksh6 million. The new matatu, a manyanga, has nine TV screens.

Installing a music system alone cost more than Ksh400, 000. In total, the cost of enhancing the vehicle from its original factory look cost Ksh780, 000. That’s enough money to purchase a second hand matatu.

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