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The Role of Informal Networks in the Protection of Public Transport in Nairobi

The Role of Informal Networks in the Protection of Public Transport in Nairobi

by Jane Lumumba

Jane Lumumba

As the urban population in African cities rapidly grows at an average of 4.5% per year, the need to provide sustainable solutions to urban transport and mobility becomes critical. It is in this regard, that I have developed a keen interest in informal public transport across African cities in particular the ‘matatu’ industry in Kenya. Specifically, my research will address the fact that little is known about how informal networks contribute to the protection of critical infrastructure, namely public transport in African cities. Studies on critical infrastructure protection have addressed the contributions of the state, private sector, non-governmental organizations, but have been silent on those of informal networks and actors specifically the “preparedness” and “prevention” strategies they employ.

Despite a wealth of scholarship on informal public transport, the literature reveals that the sector is not fully understood. My proposed research will begin by taking an inventory of informal matatu networks. The questions I ask are: What informal networks exist in the public transport sector of Nairobi city? How are these networks structured and what are their functions? What prevention and preparedness strategies do they employ to avoid crisis? How do these strategies contribute to the protection of the matatu industry?

Matatus in Kenya

Matatus are privately owned vehicles (14 and 28 -seater minibuses) that form the backbone of Kenya’s passenger transport infrastructure. The matatu industry is organized into different groups of formal and informal networks that inform the operations and management of the matatu ecosystem. The organization and structure of the matatu network is not as a result of self-organization, but instead a dynamic convolute of numerous connections between informal and formal modes of social and economic agency and different interests of actors at different levels of the informal hierarchy. The informal transport industry is dominated by labour relations, conflicts between entrepreneurs, the state and market conditions that are associated with neoliberal practices.

Integral to my research is the scrutinization of western scholarship on African informal economies and social networks that has inevitably concealed the complexity behind the institutional logic of African informal governance. Drawing on scholarship from governance theories in particular network governance, selected theories of informality and social network approaches, my research aims to re-imagine and consider a unique type of governance model that is relevant to the dynamic and contemporary issues facing Africa’s informal urban economies.

Matatus as urban public transport in Nairobi, Kenya

Secondly, my research aims to contribute to the conceptual strengthening of the boundary concepts of prevention and preparedness, by reflecting on their disciplinary usage within the context of my research to sharpen their content. Prevention includes those activities taken to prevent infra- structural failures or hazards, while preparedness indicates the organized mobilization of flexible responses to anticipated disruptions. Protection is not only about avoiding failures but also preparing for malfunctions (these could be economic, social or environmental). This is an important starting point for the designation and identification of vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

This PhD will use a combination of qualitative methods (storytelling, interviews, social network mapping) to better understand the web of informal networks in the matatu industry leading to the understanding of how prevention and preparedness is employed for protection. The research area will be the city of Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi is a significant economic regional hub in East Africa and the continent at large and has the largest number of registered matatu vehicles as the main passenger transport service.

Jane Lumumba is currently a 2nd year PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University. Prior to full time studies, Jane was the East Africa Advisor for the Commonwealth Local Government Forum based in Nairobi, Kenya. She has vast experience in the international development sector managing multi-lateral projects in sub-Saharan Africa driving the localization of the Sustainable Development Goals and empowering cities as key development partners.