How Kenya keeps unemployment numbers low by counting crime as a job

6 minutes
Matatu touts call out for customers at the Kencom bus stop in Nairobi

Matatu, those infamous transport contraptions with their blaring music and screaming graffiti of gangster rappers, reflect the frivolous nature of Kenyan society and economy.

Commuting in a matatu–the melting pot of Nairobi’s half life– can either be therapeutic or nightmarish. 

On a good day, with sweet music, you can easily forget the brawl you had with your spouse. But loud raspy music can also interfere with your painful healing process from the hang down of your last night’s inebriation.

If you didn’t sleep well, and the traffic does not disappoint by being unusually light, you can get a much-needed two-hour power nap.   

But today I struggled to find some leg room in this matatu. It would be an uncomfortable one-hour ride from my home in Umoja Estate to Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD). I could not wait to get off.

So, I was rather taken aback with the sharp tapping on the window where I sat. This young man, high as a kite at 8.30 am, using a coin, energetically tapped on the window to get me out of the matatu. 

It was irritating, but the matatu operator needed to hurry back for another trip, and possibly another thereafter, before the morning rush hour ended.

I certainly did not want to stay longer in a matatu in which my knees were hurting. So the boy needed not to bother. But wait. There are many occasions when commuters have found themselves dozing in the matatu. 

That is not good for a business that is ready to do anything, including breaking all the traffic rules, to get the extra coin from the extra passenger.

No wonder the matatu industry is one of the biggest employers (or is it under-employers?) in Nairobi’s ubiquitous informal sector. About 83.5% of Kenyans, or 15.96 million, make a living from the informal sector.

Between 300,000 to 400,000 people are employed directly within the industry in a huge variety of jobs. But it is those indirectly employed, like the young man tapping on the window, that run into millions. 

That young man left his home (if he has a home) saying that he was going to work. For every matatu that he taps, he is paid Sh20. If he is lucky, he can haul home Sh500 in a day. 

Because there are no jobs, youths are always exhorted, especially by their leaders, not to be choosy with jobs. After all, “kila hustle inalipa”(every job pays).

I had earlier resisted getting into this Matatu. It didn’t have a lot of passengers, which means it would take longer to leave for town.   

There were a lot of touts calling for customers.  But eventually, I fell to the exhortations of one of them.

“Hii mat ni safi. Haina watu wa set,” he told me. “Watu wa set” are basically fake passengers who sit in the matatu to hoodwink potential passengers into believing that the matatu has passengers. Nairobians have learnt to tell a Matatu that only has Watu-Wa-Set.  For this job, a fake passenger can be paid between Kes 10 or Kes 20. This too is a job.  


When officials of Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the national statistician, go out for their labour surveys, Watu-wa-Set and the Taper will be categorised as being employed. 

The unemployment rate in Kenya by the end of December last year stood at a low of 4.9%, according to KNBS. Do you know that this is lower than the unemployment rate in Finland, a country widely admired for its utopian standard of living standards ?

Unemployment rate in Kenya has been falling since the economy was re-opened with the government rolling back the stringent containment measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19. These measures rendered millions of people jobless.

In the third quarter of last year, the unemployment rate was at 5.3% and 5.6% in the fourth quarter of 2021.

The magic for Kenya is on how the “unemployment rate” is computed.

If in the last four weeks before the survey, you were not engaged in any economic activity but nonetheless left your home for job hunting—and was also readily available for any work—then you were unemployed.

But, if you have given up on the job hunt and decide to stay at home, you are not unemployed. Funny, isn’t it?  

On the other end, if in the last four weeks before the survey, you went to a matatu stage to call on non-existing passengers after which you were paid Sh20 for harassing your voice box, you were categorised as employed.  

Unemployment is higher among the youths. Around 19 percent of people aged between 15 and 34 years were not in employment, training or education, according to the national statistician.  

There seems to be something for everyone in this country- including hand-outs or black tax.

Sometimes, I wonder if some of these jobs are not simply acts of criminality. 

There are boys that will help you find available parking space in Nairobi’s CBD for which you will eventually pay.

If you find the parking yourself, they will stick around ‘guarding’ your car. And if you feel that they have done nothing, then you can just give them ‘Ya Macho’ (Which translates to, ‘Paying them for having been present’). 

If you don’t give them Ya-Macho, your number plate will be marked, and an appropriate penalty, mostly in the form of taking away your car’s side mirrors, will be given the next time you are around their turf. 

Of course you don’t want to waste time and fuel driving around the labyrinthine, traffic-clogged streets of the CBD, looking for parking space. Someone already knows where there is parking. If you have built some trust with them, they can park the car for you and ensure it is safe. That is a problem solved. And that is a job created.

But not all these jobs entail solving a problem; some of these jobs border on criminality.

For example, at most bus stops matatus have to pay a fee to onboard passengers. The fee varies with the stage, which the youths manning them describe as their ‘shimo.’ Even if it is just one passenger, the fee has to be paid.  

Matatu operators are threatened with violence should they not pay the fee. But things rarely get to that point. There has always been a symbiotic relationship between these gangs and Matatu operators. The gang will at some point come through for them.

As long as no one is crying foul, the government is okay with this arrangement. To the government, these boys are better ‘working’ here, than out there committing what to the government is a serious crime like robbery with violence.

See how you keep the unemployment rate low?

By Dommystify

Support MtaaSkika.

Fund independent journalism.