MAR3 : Re-imagining The Future of The Matatu Experience in Kenya using Augmented Reality (AR)

By Marian Muthui and Arwa Michelle Mboya


Nairobi is a large, sprawling city with nearly five million residents. A formal bus system operated in the nineties and its collapse gave way to the newer, more popular mode of transportation: The Matatu.

If you have lived in Nairobi, you know what a matatu looks like: a minibus with a yellow stripe that runs around it and very often marked with colorful graffiti. Part of the ‘pimping’ the matatu with graffiti and quippy slogans isn’t solely for artistic expression. It is also a part of the hustle — a way to stand out the other matatus, each competing for business in crowded streets. Some matatus might also include features such as in-ride TV’s and WiFi. Each matatu can carry anywhere between 14 and 25 passengers and there are reportedly over 20,000 independent matatus in Nairobi.


Matatus are a necessary organ for Nairobi’s survival. Everyone relies on the largely informal transit system but the matatu is also a source of immense frustration for most users. Matatus can be reckless on the road, ignoring transit rules to bypass traffic and are the biggest contributors to accidents and road blocks. Commuting in Nairobi, according to IBM, is one of the most painful in the world where routes, times and stop information are difficult to find and often unreliable.

Source: IBM

Over the years, there has been some government intervention in improving the transport system. One such intervention was the controversial ‘Michuki Rules’, enacted in 2004 by the then Minister of Transport and Communications, John Michuki. These rules were an attempt to improve safety standards of matatus by enforcing certain regulations that needed to be followed by matatu operators. For example, all matatus were required to have a yellow stripe painted across the body to help commuters easily identify public transport vehicles.

Consequently, any colorful graffiti on matatus was prohibited and operators were instructed to paint matatu exteriors fully white. Fifteen years later, aspects of the ‘Michuki Rules’ still live on. The yellow stripe remains a requirement, however, some matatu operators have creatively found ways to follow the rules, yet maintain the flamboyant designs that are synonymous with matatu culture in Kenya.

If you’re new to Nairobi, or inexperienced with the matatu system, you might be charmed by the vibrancy and eclecticness of matatus for a brief moment before the chaos becomes overwhelming. Experienced travelers have come to learn the routes through trial and error and word of mouth. Prices change on the whim of the driver and conductor, and expected travel times can never be accurately estimated.

The Problem

We were imagining what the future of mobility and transportation experiences in Nairobi, a rapidly growing and evolving economy could look like in the future. In our future-thinking scenarios, we wondered what mobile experiences we could design that would help new and inexperienced users navigate the convoluted matatu system in a comfortable manner. Before we brainstormed solutions, we identified the following needs of new and inexperienced commuters:

  • Dependable route planning to minimize travel time and predict traffic.
  • To identify correct matatus that will get them to their destination.
  • To identify correct matatu stages and stops.

In investigating different techno-solutions to typical transportation, we were inspired most by the capabilities of Augmented Reality to be a part of the solution for whatever we designed. We challenged ourselves to imagine what the future of commuting could look like in a country that is rapidly leveraging mobile technology for economic growth and consumption. It was through our initial dialogues and brainstorming that we landed on the central design question:

Design Challenge

How can we use Augmented Reality to improve the Matatu commuter experience for new & infrequent commuters?

Re-thinking The Matatu Transport System

Before we dug into user research, ideation and prototyping, we first took a closer look at the route system operated by matatus. There is a robust and systemized transit network where matatus follow 130 regular routes, with all routes congregating in downtown Nairobi.

While there is no official route map, we were inspired by the @DigitalMatatus project that mapped out a logical network map of the matatu routes using data and interviews. We were particularly inspired by the Digital Matatus methods and leveraging of ubiquitous cellphone technology to create public data for essential infrastructure. Using their map below as inspiration, and the iconic yellow line on every matatu, we created our own visual language for understanding buses and routes.

Source: Digital Matatus

Our system leverages colors and gradients to re-imagine how we understand bus routes. Firstly, we color coded the routes in accordance with the Digital Matatu project and then leveraged gradients to visualize a specific part of the route’s distance from the CBD. See below for an example using the Mombasa Road route where South C (12C), is the closest stop to the CBD and Kitengela (110KIT) is the furthest.

We felt it necessary to at least incorporate some formalized understanding of the transit network system in our design solution as part of the imagination of what transportation might look like in the future and as a practical way to guide our design process.


We adopted a user-centered approach in our study to determine the needs and wants of inexperienced commuters in Kenya. Based on our findings, we generated a personas that showcase diverse profiles of new and infrequent commuters.

Journey Map

Using a journey map, we highlighted major pain points and challenges of our primary user as they attempt to use a matatu to get to their desired destination.

Proposed Solution

Based on our research, we found Augmented Reality to be a practical solution to the problem of finding and identifying buses. We imagined a future Nairobi where WiFi is widely accessible and passengers predominantly use smart phones, which in actuality, is hardly an imaginative scenario, given Nairobi’s fast adoption of mobile technologies.

Our solution, designed to get new and infrequent travelers comfortable with the Matatu system, includes several key features:

  • Route planning & itineraries
  • Navigation guide
  • AR enabled Navigation
  • AR enabled Bus Identification
  • Friendly alert system for delays/route changes

Final Designs

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