When Francis Rangira, a veteran educationist now in his 90s, talks about absence of public transport in Kigali in the early 1950s, not even the most imaginative mind can paint a picture of how life was then.
“There were no roads but footpaths. On a few murram roads we would sometimes see the king’s (Mwami) car from Nyanza bringing him to meet colonial administrators; or a few cars of clergymen supervising schools that had been recently introduced in Rwanda,” said Rangira who came to Kigali in the early 1950s.
Back then, most residents were concentrated in Nyamirambo, a place the Belgians had designated a residential area, especially for ‘Baswahili’ and Muslims.
So, walking long distances, even for the first president Gregoire Kayibanda, did not raise eyebrows because anything that moved on wheels was rare.
Rangira is one of the few Rwandans who have been lucky to live long enough to witness the evolution of Kigali’s public transport from footpaths to tarmac roads plied by smart buses.
Another one is Marcel Gatsinzi. “When I was still a child, we would walk from city centre to Kanombe, Gikondo or even to Kanyinya towards Rulindo District. There was no public transport,” says the retired General who was born in Muhima.
So, when City of Kigali (CoK) last week received 35 more smart buses that brought the number of these 60-capacity modern buses to 104, it marked milestone in the development of public transport in the city.
It is also confirmation that with political will and a people willing to dream big, constant improvement and innovation is possible.
Brought in by Kigali Bus Services (KBS) and Royal Express, two of the three companies that were last year contracted to operate and manage public transport in the CoK, the name ‘Smart buses’ tell it all.
From the shape, size and interior design to the corporate colours of the operators (orange/white for Royal and blue/white for KBS), the new buses are a beauty to behold. The wide and automated doors make them user-friendly to all, including people with physical impairments.
Charles Ngarambe, the executive chairman of KBS explains that the buses are built to provide more space for standing passengers. “There are a few seats basically for the sick, elderly and expectant mothers,” he said.
According to Ngarambe, modern city buses are built to provide comfort while standing—after all, the maximum time one will stay onboard is 30 minutes.
Would you need a wireless connection while onboard? The buses have it. And when the driver needs to communicate with passengers at the backside; there is an inbuilt microphone for that purpose. If someone dares to endanger passengers, CCTV cameras are there to capture everything.
To city commuters, the new buses are a big relief from the discomfort of the 18-seater omnibus commonly known as Twegerane--now derogatively referred to Nyakatsi. Nyakatsi is the discarded grass thatched hut Rwandans traditionally lived in.
According to CoK Mayor Fidèle Ndayisaba, the goal is to make public transport more reliable and comfortable than personal cars. “We will improve public transport until everyone will choose to leave their private cars at home and board the well organised, cheaper and faster buses.”
Kigali’s public transport system has come a long way. According to historical accounts, the first form of public transport came in the 1960s when the local business class started to emerge and acquired vehicles.
The first vehicles were trucks of the Volvo make and were used for both goods and passenger transportation. They were mainly used to export goods to Uganda, with main export product being mats.
The first bus ever to reach the country was operated by the Travaux Publique (TP) around 1957. TP, a government-owned company would later be renamed Onatracom.
According to Gatsinzi, the first bus was called Magirus and was a donation from Germany. It had a front cabin and body built in form of a truck with a seating capacity of about 20. “It had a shape of a matchbox,” Gatsinzi said.
These buses were meant to connect the city with the countryside—meaning city residents had to wait for two more decades to have the first organised transport system.
It was in the 1970s, when the 16-seater Nissan Urvan omnibuses arrived, that Kigali started having some form of public transport. The vans were brought in by businessmen such as Silas Majyambere and the late Rubangura.
“I imported 10 omnibuses at first and hired young local drivers. When I realised that it was profitable, I increased the fleet,” Majyambere said on phone from Kampala where he is currently based. The Rwandan businessman said, he had obtained rights to represent Nissan, a Japanese automobile firm, in Rwanda.
A few years later, Toyota Hiace vans (Twegerane) came onto the scene through a local importer, la Rwandaise, that later become Akagera Motors.
Also coming in around the same time were new buses, Nissan UD from Japan. They however, ended up being transport for civil servants to and from work and in a few cases for trips upcountry.
Between 1970 and 1990, city public transport was exclusively the business of Twegerane owners. In the 1980s, the first taxi park was set up where Kigali City Tower is. It also hosted buses from upcountry until 1998, when Nyabugogo park was launched.
After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, individuals were encouraged to import more vehicles for city transport and this brought in more Twegerane. Some individuals found that the business was lucrative and thought about joining hands to maximize this opportunity. Thus the first ever organized group, the Association of Transport Company (Atraco), was created in 1996. Atraco was the first cooperative to bring in buses with 29 seats and more in 2000.
As the population continued to grow, public transport started becoming a major concern to the city authorities with disorder and chaotic scenes in the city centre.
By 2010, the city had started experimenting on a modern public transport system as 29-seater buses gained an upper hand against Twegerane.
Bus owners however, could not organise themselves to handle the growing demands of passengers, especially during the rush hours. CoK intervened and at least brought in order by having passengers queue for the few buses. This reduced robberies at bus stops.
The turning point in the development of city public transport took place on August 30, 2013 when CoK and Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) contracted three companies to operate public transport in Kigali.
Four zones were designated, with Royal Express taking the zone that connects city/Nyabugogo to Kicukiro. KBS won a seven-year tender for city/Nyabugogo to Remera, Kanombe, Kabuga, Ndera and Kabeza while Rwanda Federation of Transport Cooperatives (RFTC) took the rest.
The deal came with a number of responsibilities to the operators. They were expected to ensure smart transport, respect clients and be efficient.
The transporters committed to achieve high standards.
For example, it was agreed that, a passenger should not spend more than five minutes on a bus stage during rush hours, and 15 minutes during less busy hours.
Despite complaints that passengers are still queuing for long while waiting for transport, transporters say that they are on course to achieve targets.
RURA and city of Kigali have put in place an inspection team which works on a daily basis. Jean Claude Rurangwa, the team leader, says they are satisfied with the progress.
City public transport will be one of the best in the world in the future, if the important actors keep the momentum. While at the start, the transport operators had a problem of funds, this appears to have been sorted.
Speaking at the launch of the 35 new smart buses recently, the Ecobank Chief Executive Officer in Rwanda, said: “We started lending KBS in 2011 when there was no transport policy yet. Now that we have the policy, lending will be easier.” He said mobility is important for business growth.
The city officials are now busy planning for more roads to improve mobility.
According to Ndayisaba, the objective is to see buses ply roads in neighbourhoods, for residents to board near their homes.
Every year, the city paves a number of roads with either tarmac or stones. This also goes with street lighting, with the mayor assuring that a broken light will always be replaced within two days. He is confident that there will be a time when public transport will be the means of choice for everyone living in Kigali.
At the moment, the city is looking forward to the implementation of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a 2025 project that is expected to provide the city with lanes for only buses. Demarcation of the 30-metre-wide roads was concluded last month.