21 July 2014

The New York Times: “Transit Cards to Replace Cash on Kenyan Minibuses Are a Hard Sell”

The other day, Hitler’s driver, a short, chatty guy named Nicholas, was breaking about five laws at once: talking on his phone, running red lights, pumping Rihanna way too loud, not wearing a seatbelt, and cutting off other cars. Nicholas preferred that his last name not be revealed, lest he face consequences for his merciless style of dispatching with traffic.

The idea to use technology to tackle the matatu problem started on a rainy day a couple of years ago when some executives at Google were staring out their plate-glass windows at the matatus stacked up on Uhuru Highway, watching passengers pay double for a ride (matatus always jack up fares on rainy days). The Google executives said, What about a transit card?

Google provided the technology for free, with one condition: Everyone who wants a new BebaPay card (“beba” means “carry” in Swahili) must sign up for Gmail, the company’s free and ubiquitous email service.

Jeffrey Gettleman

A couple thoughts on this:

  • It’s tempting to think that technology can solve all the world’s problems, but the reality on the ground is a little more complicated. Fighting corruption is never as easy as passing laws from the top government, it requires convincing and educating regular people, driving change from the bottom up, giving them alternatives. In this case, the police officers taking bribes have no incentive to stop doing it, they aren’t going to support a new system that takes away their illicit source of easy cash.
  • matatus always jack up fares on rainy days – sounds familiar? This is how a completely deregulated transportation market looks like, and the tech world is still rooting for Uber to create one everywhere.
  • I guess that’s one way to artificially pump up Gmail – and by association Google+ – usage numbers…
Jeffrey Gettleman rides on the unregulated minibuses that are fighting a move toward electronic payments.

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