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Last month, Kampala witnessed the introduction of 100 big, bright orange buses meant to decongest the notoriously busy city. Riders are enthusiastic about their low fares and swifter routes. But will the new fleet actually lighten traffic?
For Marion Najjingo, life in Uganda's hectic capital has become less stressful. The 21 year old commutes six days a week between her home in suburban Luzira and downtown Kampala, where she works as a cashier in a supermarket. That 11-kilometer distance once demanded a lot of patience and money.
Like tens of thousands of fellow riders, Najjingo can't afford her own car. She had to depend on a matatu, the 14-seater taxi bus that is the standard mode of transport for many Ugandans.
The matatu has a dubious reputation. For one, passengers must wait until the vehicle fills up before it departs. Along the way, there are frequent stops to drop off and pick up passengers. Complaints about reckless driving and unfriendly customer service abound. What's more, matatus - given their near monopoly - sometimes raise tariffs unannounced.
For Najjingo, these worries belong to the past.
An unusual sight
People are growing accustomed to the sight of big, bright orange coaches plying Kampala's streets. "I am very happy with these new buses," says Najjingo on a trip back home in one of them.
The buses stop only at designated spots. And they need not wait to reach full capacity before taking off. Excitement among everyday commuters is palpable.
Who is to thank? Pioneer Easy Bus, a private company, entered into an agreement with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) to provide an alternative, more reliable and affordable mode of transport.
Pioneer, so far having introduced one hundred buses, says it will add another 422 this year. The ultimate aim is to make many of the matatus superfluous - and to put an end to Kampala's notorious traffic jams.
Many commuters seem to appreciate the changes. The neatly dressed drivers and conductors. Automatic doors. Stop buttons that allow passengers to indicate when they want to exit. For the vehicle to make a stop, riders no longer need to yell what has become an almost rhetorical 'Maaso awo!' (Luganda for 'In front there!').
Pioneer buses are designed to transport 30 seated passengers and 30 standees. Though being on your feet for a drive's duration can be tiring - Kampala is riddled with potholes - Najjingo says she still prefers a Pioneer over a matatu. "It's more spacious," she says, holding on to a handle.
The Chinese-built vehicles even have TV screens, though one needs to know Mandarin to understand programmes' subtitles.
Ultimately, Pioneer's fixed rate of 0.24 euro cents is what make passengers most happy. "Matatus charged me at least 1,000 shillings 0.30 euro cents and sometimes even 2,000," says Najjingo. She earns about 30 euros a month and - like everyone else in Uganda - is faced with 21 percent inflation.
Fewer traffic jams?
Yet the main worry among commuters is that the city's congestion will actually increase by the time Pioneer puts all its buses on the road. The first fleet was hastily introduced on a day when Kampala's matatu owners went on strike against the new levies introduced by the KCCA. What's more, the state authority's plan to "phase out" matatus does not seem to have started properly yet.
Pioneer's head of marketing, Herbert Mucunguzi, claims he knows matatu owners already pushed out of business due to the new competition. That claim is denied by Wilson Mwanje, an executive member of the ten thousand members-strong Uganda Taxi Drivers and Owners Association.
"Matatus will stay," Mwanje says. "Pioneer buses only cover certain stretches. Matatus take you anywhere."
Amidst the praise, questions about the new fleet's viability remain. Past bus projects in Kampala have failed due to mismanagement, corruption or political infighting.
So, how does Pioneer intend to make the necessary profits, given its low fares? "Through the economy of scale," says Mucunguzi. "Right now, we carry between 150,000 and 200,000 passengers a day. By the time we have 522 buses on the road, we expect to carry between one and one and a half million."
Pioneer also expects to start branding its buses. "We already have advertising commitments from MTN and Pepsi Cola," says Mucunguzi.
BY MARK SCHENKEL
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