Deploying AI and Big Data to decongest Kenya’s capital city

It’s 9pm, one hour to curfew time. John Kiyaka scrolls through his smartphone to gauge how the day’s matatu business performed.

The fleet supervisor of fifteen Neo Kenya Mpya buses needs no pen nor paper as he compares the revenue raked in on various days since December began. He is also able to see from the comfort of his house the number of vehicles currently on stage and those on the road.

When Afcacia boarded one of the Neo Kenya Mpya buses from the Fire Lane stage in Nairobi, all passengers were seated 10 minutes before departure, and only a few paid using cash.

Just near the driver’s seat is an electronic device mounted on a vertical metal bar that the conductor is using to churn out receipts for passengers who have paid in advance. A white charging cable connects it to a source of power that keeps it functioning at any given time.

Mr Kiyaka explains that the seamlessness has been created by a digital transport mobile system that has been in effect since Covid-19 hit the country nine months ago.

“We call it Komiut. It is an efficient way of managing our public service value chain. We are able to manage our payments, monitor the fleet, and take care of our passengers and crew,” he told this writer as the bus sped along Thika Super Highway.

The system is built on the prowess of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data analytics with the services available both on web and via a mobile app, and according to Neo Kenya Mpya chief executive Douglas Njiru, this could be Kenya’s most viable solution to the constant matatu congestion in Nairobi and other major towns.

“This is just what the matatu sector needs. With this system, we are able to get real-time data of the number of buses at stage, those on the road while passengers can see from the app those available for booking. Depending on where a traveler is, they can choose the bus to use since the departure data is accurate,” he notes.

He adds that with real-time analytics, the public transport firm is able to interact with its customers directly, enabling them to report drivers who overspeed or touts who mishandle them.

More critical is the platform’s ability to enhance Kenya’s quest for cashless payments that he says has marginally reduced fare collection shortfalls on the part of conductors.

“Cases of overcharging passengers during peak time are unheard of here. We have set our minimum and maximum fares through the system. The cashless payment has come in handy for conductors who struggle to find change for passengers paying using cash,” adds Mr Njiru.

The company has 170 buses, 400 staff and ferries at least 46,000 Kenyans to Thika every day, all paying a fare of between Sh70 and Sh100, even after observing Covid-19 social distancing directives, where the 51-capacity buses allow only 30 commuters on board.

Every bus has its own Komiut device and M-Pesa payment Till Number to enhance accuracy in data harmonization and payments reconciliation.

This has enabled the company to realize more trips per day and a rise in profits, compared to one year ago when they relied on manual management. For the month of November 1.4 million passengers were recorded to have used the system.

According to Antony Chomba, the conductor at our service, the cashless platform has eliminated other hurdles that touts experience on a daily basis.

“First holding cash between your fingers is risky because it attracts thieves and hijackers. There are cases of malicious passengers handing us fake notes, usually of Sh1000 value. I have two incidents where a well dressed man wanted Sh430 change claiming that he had given me Sh500 yet he only handed me a Sh50 note. These cases are many,” he narrated.

He further highlights that due to social media addiction, he has seen many passengers forget their change. “It is a difficult position,” he decries.

Such passengers can never be traced to get back their money but these hurdles have been eliminated.

The innovation, which has been developed by NCBA and its partners, also enables supervisors who monitor 15 buses each to work from wherever they are while also availing real-time analytics to the company to help it to understand which services to improve.

“Digital finance is a key enabling factor in decongesting the city. The data collected can give rea-time information on daily passenger and vehicle capacity. This is the information that can be used to redistribute traffic,” managing director of NCBA Group John Gachora said.

Through Komiut, passengers have the freedom to choose where to sit in a bus while ticking the seat as booked immediately after payment. Once all seats are booked, the system disengages and the registration number of the vehicle is marked ‘inactive’ on the passenger app.

At the TRM stage, one passenger alighted and her seat was marked ‘vacant’ enabling another passenger to book it online and boarded at the Witeithie stage. This has been executed using a geo-location intelligence feature on the platform.

When we were two kilometres to Thika town, the bus went ‘active’ on the app again and people started booking. On alighting, it was fully booked and it began its journey back to Nairobi.

However, the innovation still suffers from low uptake on the part of matatu saccos, with many investors being forced to withdraw some fleet citing low returns occasioned by the pandemic.

“Though we have made huge strides, we are seeing low confidence and trust among matatu owners who still prefer cash collections. Some even still monitor their crew physically,” said Mr Njiru.

With the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) planning to move stages outside the Central Business District, the more than 20,000 minibuses which enter the CBD each day will now be forced to stop outside the CBD and compete for very limited parking spots.

Passengers will be dropped off often several kilometres from their final destinations, and from there, they will have few options but to walk. Cabs are too expensive for most, while cheaper bodabodas are also barred from accessing the heart of the city.

But Mr Njiru is optimistic that emerging technologies will be pivotal in executing a system that allows passengers to connect to various matatu stages without much hassle while also playing a key role in the successful implementation of the government’s Bus Rapid Transport plan.

“If you are dropped at Ngara, for instance, and you want to get to Railways, through this platform, you would be able to see from your phone which connecting vehicle is ready to take you there and book it right away. That would create an orderly entry of people into the CBD,” he exemplifies.

Matatu Owners Association chairperson Simon Kimutai has warned that failure to involve all stakeholders in the decongestion plan could lead NMS to failure.

“We were waiting to see how they will do it. There are no proper plans let alone consultations,” he said.