The Business behind being stuck #2: Meet Nairobi's very own Xzibit
Standing at one of the many bus stations in Nairobi, matatus – the local buses - are lined up and ready for take-off. “Beba! Beba! Twende!” (Leaving! Leaving! Let’s go!), one of the matatu conductors screams to pedestrians walking by. Big black clouds of smoke leave the exhausts as matatu drivers pressure their gas pedals to strengthen the appearance of leaving. The conductor doesn’t get much response. Everybody seems to react quite indifferent when I witness this intense and chaotic scene. “Matatu’s are everywhere, there are so many. They have become an important part of our culture", Mohammed Kartar explains.
Every Saturday night on K24: Matatu culture. Matatu festival, matatu culture on FB, Twitter, Instagram. Matatu’s have really paved their way into the lives of Kenyans, extending from the roads to their living rooms. You can say a lot about these local busses – for example that they have an absolute ridiculous driving style - but one thing is for sure: they look absolutely amazing!
Mohammed, better known as ‘Moha’, was on of the first, and is definitely one of the best matatu artists in Kenya. In stead of on paintings, paper or walls, Moha’s artwork is being driven through Kenya by thousands of vehicles. This friendly Kenyan with beard and silver-plated teeth can do body work, graphic design, spray-paint, interior decoration, mechanics, sound systems and lighting. Moha is Nairobi’s very own Xzibit; he can pimp your ride anyway you want.
"I’ll always be the best."
In section 3, Eastleigh, where Moha’s garage is located, he is a true hero. But his popularity extends further. His work, recognisable by the Moha Grafix sticker, has become famous all over Kenya. He is close to becoming a national celebrity, performing in different comedy- and TV-shows. Here, he is often praised for his success and continuous contributions to a flourishing business branch.
It’s because of people like Moha - who train and inspire many young boys - that Kenya now consists of a very competitive and growing ‘Matatu culture’ providing many jobs and producing true art on wheels. I visit Moha in his workshop in Eastleigh to learn more about his contributions to the matatu culture in Kenya.
How did you get involved in this particular business?
You know, I was born an artist and I thank God for that. I never studied art in school, artistry is in my blood. Already in high school I was drawing the whole time. Teachers and students used to pay me to make nice diagrams and figures. I just love art, so I was thinking of ways to show my talent where everybody could see it. So, I thought about cars. I love cars. And if you do something on a car, not two or twenty people will see it, more than 100 people will notice, because they move all the time and go everywhere.
“You know, I was born an artist and I thank God for that. Artistry is in my blood.”
So I started with Mombasa buses in 2002. At that time most matatu owners wanted to give their rides an identity. They would put artists, movies, sportsmen and women on their cars. So that was my way in. But in the beginning it was very hard. I had no money and I was not used to the materials; I think I was the first one to use graffiti spray-paint on cars.
But I never gave up. My parents died when I was very young which meant the world is not stopping for me; I have to work hard and never give up. It gave me the courage to really push this through. My breakthrough came when I painted a Nissan matatu dubbed Ganja Farmer in 2004. The job spoke for itself and I began getting referrals from matatu owners. Not long after, I saved enough money to open a garage in Nairobi. Instead of going to clients, people would come to me now.
“My parents died when I was very young which meant the world is not stopping for me; I have to work hard and never give up."
How do you sell your art? How did you become so successful?
I used to be a salesman, but that was very hard because I don’t know how to sell. But now, this is my passion. So if you love something, wherever you put it, it will just sell. And I don’t do something that I think is good. I always ask the boys around me: “Unaona aje? Iko Poa? How is it? Is it good?”. If the young boys around me like it, other people will like it as well.
Also, I have almost 20 years’ experience now; I have become very good at what I do. Many people know me and my work by now, also through the logo on the buses, FB and Instagram. I started with nothing, but step by step, every time saving ‘kidogo’ (a little) for paint and materials, I reached the point of a successful company, employing over 15 people now.
"I used to be a salesman, but that was very hard because I don’t know how to sell."
How much will it cost me to let you do a matatu from scratch?
It depends on the design and the client’s demands. Let’s say a normal matatu - with everything from spray-paint to rims, interior decoration, lighting, sound – can go for around Ksh. 2.000.000 ($20.000).
Are you an inspiration to a lot of youngsters in the country? Do you mentor them as well?
Yes, very much. Especially because I started without anything. I showed that if you have the will and the power - if you never give up – anything is possible. I also taught a lot of young boys and tried to give them the best example; to be humble and to respect everyone. God gave me this talent for free so if I teach someone and they start their business elsewhere, God will still provide me with more. I’ll always be the best.
One last question I just need to ask: what about your silver teeth?
I like bling you know. I used to have a lot of rings and chains but if I was working, I had to put this silver on the side. By the time I finished my work, the silver would be gone sometimes. Some people just grab and steal so I decided to put all the silver in my mouth; now nobody can take anything. (Both laughing)