OVER the Easter Holiday early in the year 2015, workers in Kenya’s Nairobi County government systematically blocked several roundabouts in the capital city. The plan was to prevent motorists from doing right turns, forcing traffic to flow on-wards. The eventual plan was to replace the roundabouts with intersections where traffic would then flow in all directions, controlled by traffic lights.
The carnage started the next morning.
As motorists drove onto their usual routes they found barrels filled with concrete, conjoined with metal bars – the usual Nairobi horrible traffic became hellish. It was the first of a host of many measures and the traffic jams and complaints of changed routes escalated over the next few days as Nairobi residents went back to work and school.
“The problem,” says Ma3route startup founder Laban Okune, “is that the county government did not do proper research or simulations.” They simply placed the drums and other forms of barriers and then waited for the chaos to happen – it sums up how little is actually known about Nairobi traffic, an information gap that exists because of lack of sufficient research and investment in proper traffic management and simulation systems.
Laban’s startup, Ma3route, was not initially meant to address this information gap. When he first moved to Nairobi in 2002, traffic was already a mess. When he got to his third year in university, still a neophyte in knowing Nairobi routes, he hit a snag.
He needed to deliver his resume to as many organisations as possible for industrial attachment but more often than not, he got lost or couldn’t find the right matatu – privately owned minibuses used as public transport – to his desired destination. “It hit me then that if there was a resource to pool together information about matatu routes, it would help very many people,” says Laban. It was a simple user problem.
When he got his first car, he joined in the chaos of Nairobi roads. Like everyone else, he blindly followed traffic. Once in a while, if the FM radio updates were timely or some other form of communication alerted him, he based his route on emerging factors. But there was the problem.
Matatu drivers long devised a way to exchange information about traffic. Like any other profession, anything that would lead to opportunity cost was to be avoided, and collaboration was, and still is key. The mode of communication is mainly through hand signals and flashing lights.
The thumbs up means everything is okay with traffic flow, and there are no police officers in the vicinity. Anything else is further defined by specific hand signals. Phone calls, sometimes through the drivers themselves or the conductors also play a key role in this communication.
For private motorists though, this communication channels are completely closed, and they are left to the mercy of the road. When a minor accident blocks traffic flow, the matatus quickly learn about through oncoming traffic and switch routes, leaving private motorists in the mess.
For Laban, this situation was untenable. “What if we had a solution that made it such that as an incident happens, the first people there can help others make decisions?” Such a solution, as Ma3route would eventually become, would follow and perfect the key rules of crowdsourcing. It would automate the process of sharing that information, and find ways to reach as many users as fast as possible.