Mobile Discos in Nairobi by Richmond Atta-Ankomah

Submitted by DPP on Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 14:49

I do not know whether I should call it innovation or not. Well, to the extent that something new has been done may suffice to give it this label which is becoming increasingly popular particularly amongst academics. If we can call it innovation then it appears providers of public transport services in Nairobi are “over-innovating”. So, what are they innovating and how has this innovation caught up with the market?

Nairobi’s city center is prolifically punctuated with many nightclubs (or discos) and pubs, making night life in Nairobi spicy and attractive, particularly for its youth. Throughout the week, and especially during the weekends, pubs start filling up from around half past five in the evening and the nightclubs beam till daybreak. As if this is not enough, commercial buses popularly called “Mat” by “Nairobians” have been turned into “discos”.  Despite extreme recklessness, rowdiness and ruthlessness of the drivers of these buses, people commute around the clock with these buses and either endure or enjoy the loud music (sometimes stereo) from large speakers with inflated bass in the buses. Woe betides anybody with weak eardrums because one can be sure that the eardrums will become weaker each time after using any of these buses. But most people in Nairobi do not have any other option; taxis are very expensive and “boda boda” (commercial motor bicycles) are not only expensive, but very unsafe.

Some of the buses are also decorated with lighting systems, in the interior and sometimes the exterior, sending out different shades and colours of light. Sometimes, most part of the interiors walls are buried under graffiti and designs suggestive of a typical nightclub in Nairobi. I can pinpoint only two, but essential differences between these buses and the nightclubs. First, you cannot buy alcohol in these buses and second, while people sometimes make body movements to the music, dancing is restricted because of limited space and the fact that most people are seated. However, these buses do provide a more extended social and dating scene, as well as a commute. So, to a large extent, Nairobi’s disco life is quite extended, encapsulating the conventional nightclubs and what I call “mobile discos” – the Mat.  Clubbers who use Mat to go to their various homes do not miss the action so much until they get home.

But what brought these mobile discos into being? It all started with the need to entertain passengers on board of these buses. Drivers and owners of the buses started building radio/sound systems in their buses. Sooner rather than later, buses with some form of entertainment gained a competitive edge over others. This started a process of incremental innovation in the entertainment kits in these buses as the drivers and owners tried to maintain and/or increase their competiveness. Now, the nature and degree of entertainment in these buses has become a nuisance to a section of the population although others have completely embraced it and wish it would stay with them forever. For example, the youths who flock to the nightclubs and pubs and who are naturally exuberant enjoy using these buses but the elderly and the matured working class have problems with these buses.

Recently, the Kenyan government has put in place measures to check this anomaly. For example, drivers who play loud music in the buses can be arrested by the traffic police. But the Kenya traffic police have found it difficult to enforce the measures although some modicum of success has been achieved, generally suggesting that this approach may not be the best way to resolve the problem. The drivers still play the loud music and only lower the volume anytime they find a police officer in sight. Moreover, this approach raises questions regarding whose interest matters. Obviously, the government’s intervention compromises the youth’s interest in favour of the elderly and the matured working class. In a Pareto sense, this may not lead to improvement in social welfare.

Far from being an ardent supporter of the ideals of neo classical economics, I think much of the solution to the problem lies with the bus drivers and the bus owners. As they innovated to meet the need of the passengers who suffered boredom using buses without any form of entertainment, they can innovate to meet the changing nature of the demand. The kind of innovation I expect from the drivers and the owners is a hybrid of product and organizational types wherethey acknowledge the segmented nature of the market demand and innovate to satisfy each segment.