Why Google Is So Interested In Kenya's Transit System

The thousands of graphics-covered minibuses called matatus that zip through Nairobi make up one of the largest (and liveliest) informal transportation systems in the world. This unregulated—some might say renegade—transit keeps the city moving rather efficiently, and, until recently, was an all-cash business. Until Google stepped in.

According to the New York Times, a team from Google's Nairobi office has introduced a transit card and fare collecting system that is meant to render the minibus network cashless. The BebaPay card is free to anyone (as long as they sign up for a Gmail account, touché, Google) and can be scanned by conductors through an Android phone. Passengers can load value onto their cards through local participating banks.

The system is supposed to help regulate fares (which can magically double in bad weather), track transactions, help gather ridership data, and prevent bribery and robberies, which are rampant in the all-cash system. But it also will ostensibly allow Kenya to collect taxes on the minibuses and will require government-issued paychecks instead of pocketed cash, which is not sitting well with minibus operators. The buses were required to go cashless July 1. Many of them haven't, and Kenya is now rethinking the implementation plan.

Google's challenge is huge. The team not only has to wrangle the proprietors of all these privately owned buses, but they have to convince them that cashless transactions are the best way for business. These are folks that engage in all sorts of clever, unorthodox, and potentially unsafe practices, like packing buses dangerously full and hiring people as seat-fillers to make potential passengers think buses will leave sooner, just so they'll buy tickets. And they're no strangers to offering the latest in technology to attract customers: Some have plasma screen TVs and even offer free Wi-Fi.

But getting this industry to adhere to any standards will not be easy, when a cash-only business is so lucrative. In the past, the government has tried to persuade conductors to wear uniforms or adhere to safety regulations, to no avail.

Cashless transit systems are definitely becoming the standard in many cities—earlier this month London's buses stopped accepting currency, for example. But it's estimated that 99 percent of London passengers were already using the Oyster fare card to make their transactions. This is asking passengers to sign up for and prepay using a new method when they aren't guaranteed that the bus they want to take is even accepting the card yet.

But there is one way that the program might see more success: A report at Quartz says that BebaPay might soon be accepted at other merchants, which would help the card become more culturally valuable. And with the rise of mobile phone use in Africa, you'd think Google would come up with an easy way to add value to the card from a bank balance through a mobile app, and make it even more convenient.

Still, it's weird to think that Kenya—where millions of people ride matatus every day—might soon be regulated by Google-based currency, with the tech company slowly collecting the Gmail addresses of users. In a country where cash is king, it seems like most people would prefer to opt-out. [New York Times via Digg]

AP Photo/Sayyid Azim