Naomi Mwaura
Ashoka Elected in 2022   |   Kenya

Naomi Mwaura

Naomi is working toward creating a professional and inclusive public transport industry for all in Kenya. By centering the needs of the most vulnerable groups in transportation design and employment…
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Because of the pandemic, Naomi Mwaura was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.


Naomi is working toward creating a professional and inclusive public transport industry for all in Kenya. By centering the needs of the most vulnerable groups in transportation design and employment structures, Naomi is expanding economic opportunities for women while also improving accessibility of the public transportation system to other vulnerable groups such as women, elderly people, people with disabilities, and children.

The New Idea

Given the vital role that public transportation – and specifically the individual-owned “matatus’ – play in economic and social mobility in Kenya, Naomi is working to transform the industry within a generation to make it a safe, efficient preferred mode of transportation for women and other vulnerable groups, as well as a safe, dignified workplace for all Kenyans. Unlike other isolated initiatives in Kenya that address only the symptoms of the problems facing public transport in Kenya (e.g., safety, corruption, accessible roads), Naomi is seeking to change the nature of employment in the industry and permanently raise the quality of the experience for riders, so that women and other vulnerable groups in Kenya can participate more fully in the economy and society.

Naomi started FLONE Initiative, which is using a combination of advocacy based on data and research on public transportation sector, including violence “hot spots”; culturally-adapted education of matatu owners about the untapped market potential of increasing the number of riders who are women and members of other vulnerable groups; culturally-targeted education campaigns for drivers and the public (including key influencers of particular tribes); and bystander intervention trainings to improve the rider experience for women and vulnerable groups. At the same time, Naomi and FLONE are working with government agencies, transportation workers, and unions to improve driver and conductor services, and to increase the number of women who can safely work in the public transportation industry.

FLONE created a Women in Transport chapter in Nairobi to build the capacity amongst the women transport workers community to advocate for themselves, which then led to the creation of a Mombasa Chapter and other cities in Kenya, as well as abroad to cities like Kampala and Dar Es Salaam. Naomi also created the “Women in Transport Africa Conference,” a unique gathering of transportation industry professionals across Africa that bridges the gap between transportation policy researchers and workers, and urban planning, public safety, and gender-based violence experts.

For the past seven years, FLONE has worked with 3,000 matatu workers, 100+ transport stakeholders (including government agencies and labor unions) and more than 1,000 women professionals to implement interventions. FLONE also recently achieved the passage of national legislation that makes “stripping” of women on public transportation a crime punishable by up to 20 years.

The Problem

Seventy percent of the Kenyan population uses public transport in the form of matatus (privately-owned minibuses) daily. This industry is the largest employer in the ‘informal-economy’ with about 350,000 workers comprising drivers, conductors, and administrative staff, and gross revenues of USD 4,000,000 per day The industry also creates indirect jobs for vehicle assemblers, importers, and vehicle maintenance personnel. According to the Matatu Owners Association, there are around 80,000 matatus on Kenyan roads. A matatu is a 13-seater minivan which is privately owned. The owner has two employees who operate it (a driver and a ‘conductor’ who sits behind the driver with the passengers) and are required to give USD 50 to the owner at the end of the day. If they make more, they divide it amongst the two of them. If the target is not met, they go home empty handed. The only explicit mandate is to move the vehicle from point A to B, the rest is blurred. As a result, the faster they move the vehicle, the more money the employees will make. There is no training in customer service (or any other) for these two employees who interact with approx.120 people daily.

After Kenyan independence – and again in 2017 – the government tried to create a government-funded public transportation system, but both efforts failed quickly. The network of privately-owned matatus simply provided faster transportation with a broader reach for most Kenyans, and the matatu networks were more ingrained in Kenya’s urban centers. Today, the top public transportation priority for Kenya’s government is building and maintaining roads and hard infrastructure, and they have little resources or attention paid to social issues, like safety and equality of access.

From the perspective of the commuter using a matatu to access work, school, childcare or shopping, the industry was designed for the convenience of ‘able-bodied men,’ while ignoring the needs of various other users like women, teenage girls, children, elderly, or people with disabilities. First, incidents of sexual harassment (e.g., touching, pinching, taking revealing photos, publicly stripping women of their clothes) and sexual assault against women on matatus are high: 73% of matatu managers and 88% of commuters have experienced or witnessed sexual violence against women or girls on public transport. There also are countless police reports on violence against commuters from other vulnerable groups.

Second, women in Kenya travel differently from men: As primary caretakers, women often must do trip-chaining, carry multiple packages and travel with children or older adults. While women are often reliant on public transportation, they face enormous obstacles in accessing it. Such obstacles include unpredictable routes, being charged extra for large parcels, not feeling safe traveling at night, and having to make multiple trips to fulfill their responsibilities. Barriers to accessing public transportation contribute to maintaining women in poverty and being vulnerable to violence.

From the perspective of employees of the public transportation system, since colonial times the industry has been male dominated, both from an employment point of view and the misogynistic values it embodies; currently, women make up only 7% of the public transportation industry’s labor force in Kenya. Further, since there are no contracts, background checks, qualifications, or training needed to become a matatu operator, there is a cultural belief that working in the industry is for rude and uneducated men. Matatu operators carry a social stigma associated with criminality and recklessness.

The government has largely avoided regulating the matatus. Consequently, the public transport industry has evolved into a chaotic system with a weak framework of written and unwritten rules. These rules are mostly crafted by the same players who are benefitting from them. Therefore, they have no incentives to change the status quo as it provides them with an informal workforce and they pay no taxes, no minimum wages, and provide no paid holidays or any other benefits.

Because of the safety and accessibility challenges of Kenya’s public transportation, many Kenyans purchase individual cars when they can save enough money (rather than spending it on housing or education). This growth in individual passenger cars on the roads in Kenya, and the resulting decrease in riders on public transportation, will exacerbate environmental damage and contribute to climate change.

The Strategy

Naomi’s strategy combines three core elements that create an impact along the entire industry’s value chain: knowledge generation, behavior change and movement building. Over the last decade, Naomi has tested and defined her strategy based on data and research and adapting it to pressing issues in the industry, while creating a movement for transport workers, government agencies, and labor unions on how to run a better and more inclusive public transport business.

First, with respect to knowledge generation, when Naomi first started working on this problem, TV and radios showcased isolated cases of harassment and violence against women in public transport, but this did not give the full picture of widespread and serious violence experienced by women on public transportation across the country. Over the past decade, Naomi has bridged the gap between this reality for women who ride matatus and society’s understanding of the problem through data collection and research, all of which is open-source data about the industry which is used for program interventions and helps other stakeholders to work on these topics.

When FLONE launches a report, it is followed by a stakeholders’ forum (comprised of professionals, policy makers, public transport users, and researchers) to share their findings and linked to an implementation strategy to address the issue. For example, FLONE conducted a Gender Equity and Mobility of Care assessment on travel patterns and challenges faced by women passengers using matatus, which exhibited multiple acts of violence against women and girls. As a result, FLONE and UN Habitat developed a practical toolkit that provides minimum standard guidelines and tools to create safer and more accessible public transportation systems for women in African cities.

FLONE uses the toolkit to integrate gender-sensitive organizational policies and service principles into the culture of transport organizations in Nairobi and Mombasa through Usalama Wa Uma (which means ‘public safety’ in Swahili). It includes a wide range of professional development courses for public transport workers which she adapts according to tribe and other characteristics of the target groups. Some of the course include sexual harassment and violence: training equipping matatu SACCOs on how better accommodate to women users and professionals, financial management: educating matatu operators on how to manage and save using their daily wages, and customer service: training on how to handle customers from vulnerable groups on public transport as well as best practices in difficult situations among other topics. FLONE also offers courses around better matatu business: targeted towards the SACCO management where they investigate organizational policies of the SACCO, analyze how they run their business, the challenges, and more. Naomi uses two of the courses to highlight the importance of hiring more women in the matatu industry: the better matatu business (for SACCO leaders) and the sexual harassment & violence trainings for matatu operators. In this way, she feeds her knowledge generation work directly into her second pillar, behavior change. FLONE team is currently working with policy makers to incorporate the Toolkit into a national policy, and she is already scaling the toolkit to Kampala (Uganda) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).

FLONE works with matatu drivers, conductors, and SACCO managers to raise the standard of behavior that directly impacts commuters’ experience using public transport. This idea surfaced from the insight that there was no training on how to become a good matatu operator. Naomi is professionalizing the industry by training workers in the industry and advocating for better business practices. FLONE also used their report on ‘The Accessibility of Public Transport Service in Nairobi Metropolitan Area,’ which identified the current policies and programs promoting accessibility in public transport, and the technical, social and policy gaps that hinder the implementation of policies and programs. It also documents the challenges faced by persons with disabilities and the elderly in accessing public transport, and best practices on accessible public transport that can be replicated in other counties of Kenya. This report was then used as a basis for advocacy implementation support to local governments throughout Kenya.

As part of FLONE’s drive to constantly seek research on current issues, they studied the impact of COVID-19 on women in transport professionals. Based on the study findings they developed a policy paper that was submitted to the National Disaster Committee convened by the Kenyan Government with a set of recommendations and mitigation measures to ensure sustainable public transport systems post-COVID-19. To complement these efforts, FLONE launched a series of activities to support 140 women transport workers such as unconditional cash transfers for three months to single parent households that lost their jobs due to COVID-19, launched a free COVID-19 lessons via SMS, and successfully advocated for the government to pay for National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) premium for twenty of them.
Because women report feeling safer in matatus owned and driven by women, Naomi also created ‘Women in Transport Chapters’ (WIT) which focuses on attracting, retaining, and advancing women workers in the matatu industry. This concept came after noticing that there were only a few women in the industry and the ones who were there, did not have positive experiences or opportunities to grow. The Chapters are groups of women public transport workers created by FLONE with the intention to unify and empower them to take the direction they feel is necessary for them to create change, advocate for themselves and eventually grow in the industry. WIT are platforms for women matatu workers to increase their employment opportunities and increase their know-how on how to be successful in the industry. For example, the organization launched a comprehensive 6-month driving course to help 33 women conductors advance to become drivers, a position that is better protected from job loss, and upon completion 11 of them had gotten the promotion.

FLONE facilitates various capacity building workshops for WIT on basic first aid, customer service, savings & finance, assisting commuters living with disabilities and other support sessions. In this way, Naomi is creating a pool of well-trained women in transport ready to work in matatus. Naomi empowers the WIT member chapters to be the voice of the transformation in the industry. For this reason, ‘Women in Transport Africa Conferences’ is the best platform for WIT to share their experience in creating a chapter, challenges, and opportunities to inspire the audience and create chapters in other countries. So far there are chapters in Nairobi (150+ members), Machakos (20+ members) and Mombasa County (30+ members) organized into 8 table banking groups with a revolving fund of $15,000 which increases their access to affordable loans and savings. There are plans to replicate in the biggest cities across Kenya.

FLONE also collaborates with county governments in helping them understand the challenges that both women transport worker and commuters face with the intention to create a set of recommendations for the Government to put in place. The last baseline survey resulted in the establishment of a new Women in Transport Chapter, offering professional development courses to women workers who felt isolated in the industry. From the commuters' side, the underlying issues were different forms of harassment. As a result, Naomi brought together county officials, researchers, donors, and residents and worked on a Sexual Harassment and Gender Sex Violence policy for public transport that was recently approved at the county level. She is committed to scale it at national level because since Kenya’s independence, there has not been any policy in place. The organization is also developing an online platform and mobile app called ‘Report it Stop it’ for commuters to report any incident they experience and the specific route and rate the security on public transport routes. FLONE will open source this data for commuters, city authorities, civil societies, and local governments to gain deeper insights and improve situational awareness of specific issues.

Naomi engages government agencies and county officials in other activities to create capacity at a state level. She provides training, like she did with the Nairobi City Council and State Department of Gender, incorporates them in research and invites them to stakeholders’ forums to discuss research outcomes. Moreover, The National Transport Safety Authority (NTSA) incorporated substantial information on sexual harassment in their revised driving school curriculum because of discussions with FLONE. In this way, Naomi has become an asset for the government by providing knowledge and building capacity amongst other resources that help the Government develop policies.

Working at a grassroot level has given FLONE the credibility within the sector to become the “go to” organization for labor unions to reach out for advice. For example, FLONE worked with the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers' Union (ATWGU), a labor union based in Uganda to equip women members with know-how and best practices to create a Women’s Committee within the labor union.

FLONE and TAWU (Transport Workers Union of Kenya) hosted a forum on transport workers’ rights to mediate between workers and traffic police. After several incidents involving the public transport operators and traffic police and the negative interaction between them, FLONE set up a forum to intervene between the parties. As a result, matatu operators were equipped with numbers and contacts of police oversight authorities so they could make formal complaints about the specific police officer causing trouble. There has never been such a platform before where the parties involved were able to talk about issues and develop a consensus on how to handle them.

As part of her movement building efforts, Naomi organized “My Dress, My Choice” protests. It created awareness and sparked new research on the issue, enabled women to show up and speak about daily experience using public transport, and new research was conducted about the issue. The biggest outcome was that a new law was passed which made “stripping women in public transport” punishable up to 20 years. 

Naomi recognized the need for a network to create a more inclusive public transport in Kenya and throughout Africa. She organizes an annual ‘Women in Transport Africa Conference,’ a gathering that brings together civil society, policy makers, city authorities, researchers, academics, industry workers and students amongst other stakeholders from the African continent to stimulate and highlight new research, interventions and trends on women, children, persons with disabilities, and mobility issues in the region. The conference is also the only official platform for practitioners to share their experiences, challenges, and inform policy, research, and interventions in the industry. Naomi organized four annual conferences in Kenya and Ethiopia with 1,000+ participants and envisions hosting others in different cities across Africa. By doing this, they aim to build a smart network of partners who strengthen, formalize, and organize informal workers and the transport industry in each country.

The Person

Naomi grew up in an extended family that owned and ran matatus in Kenya, shaping her understanding of the challenges and opportunities of employment and wealth building through the public transport sector. She grew up watching her uncles as owners, drivers, conductors, and cleaners of public transport vehicles. Naomi gained a nuanced perspective and an appreciation of public transport as a source of income and employment, as well as a vital support for households and a way to provide freedom of mobility. At the same time, Naomi also saw the challenges faced by owners, workers, and riders in this unregulated and sometimes dangerous industry, with corruption, bribery, and rampant violence. Naomi’s uncles were the victims of a carjacking and shooting while driving their matatu, and Naomi herself experienced a physical assault from a matatu conductor. Unlike much of popular opinion however, Naomi did not see the matatu industry as a lost cause, but rather as a misunderstood and neglected industry, badly in need of transformation to serve the needs of all Kenyans.

Being an only child, Naomi was always surrounded by adults, and she had a special relationship with her introvert father. Naomi and her father would go for long walks in the evening and read books together and discuss them. He was committed to teaching her to think creatively, question norms, and foster curiosity. Her mother was a full-time secretary but was (and still is) a serial entrepreneur and would involve Naomi in her ventures, ranging from making and selling soap, selling firewood, and supplying uniforms to security firms in Nairobi.

In her university years, Naomi launched and led several student groups, including Poetry Slam and Peer Counseling. Naomi led a number of feminist, awareness-raising initiatives that focused on women’s place in society and their safety, including organizing a version of the play The Vagina Monologues on campus, as a way to celebrate women and spotlight their vulnerability. Distressed by the regular harassment female students experienced at a public transportation terminal near the university, Naomi also started a campus-wide self-defense initiative for female students.

In 2011, while still in university, together with some friends, Naomi developed the ideas and concept behind FLONE Initiative, namely, a women-led organization, working towards the creation of safe, sustainable, and accessible public transportation spaces for women and vulnerable groups in Africa. In 2013, after graduating from University, Naomi founded FLONE Initiative. The name is a combination of her parents’ names, Florence, and Nehemiah, who were the first supporters of her work.

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