Kenya Is Growing – M-Pesa Is A Sophisticatated Payment System that Uses Safaricom Mobile Phones As Its Platform

By Paolo von Schirach

March 22, 2013

NAIROBI, Kenya – Nairobi gets its name from the Maasai who called it “Enkare Nyroby”. In Maasai language it means “Cold Water”. Later on it became known as “Green City in the Sun”. Well, not so charming these days. Nairobi has become a huge emerging country metropolis, with all the disadvantages of size and rapid growth: ugly buildings, poor planning, gigantic traffic congestion and bad air quality caused by dreadful emissions; and only some of the advantages of modernity: such as truly reliable and safe public services. In the place where I am staying, in the rather affluent northern area called Kilimani, (think of Bethesda or Potomac, if you live near Washington, DC), I was reproached for drinking tap water on my first day, assuming that it was treated and therefore safe. “No, No. Not safe. We boil our water here. Always”. So much for basic public services.  And yet nearby you can find Junction, a modern shopping mall with many upscale stores and its large Nakumatt supermarket whose shopping bags sport the very “with it” environmentally sensitive advice: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Very Swedish, (except that they use plastic bags, not paper).

M-Pesa for payments via cell phone

On the bright side, consider M-Pesa. (“Pesa” in Swahili means “money;” and so M-Pesa means “Mobile Money”). This is a most ingenious system of payments and money transfers, all done via cell phone and available to all customers of Safaricom, the large Kenyan cell phone company. “I use it every day –says Jeff, my driver– I pay bills. My school tuition, car registrtion. I send money to others. It is easy, safe and reliable. I wonder why it has not been adopted in the West”.

Indeed, I also wonder. This is Kenyan made technology, even though the system’ s backbone is now managed by IBM. Consider the advantages of not having to go places to pay your bills. No offices, no bank tellers, no standing in line, no mailing of checks and what not. More than 17 million users. Remarkable. 

No more safari adventure?

So, has Kenya lost its charm of exotic land of perennially mild weather and safari adventures? (Remember Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa?) Well, yes. This is perhaps unfortunate for the (mild) thrill seeking tourists. But people here aspire to modernity, just like everybody else. Some are getting there, while an awful lot is still to be done to allow more to join in.

As for the legacy of the past, a March 21 headline in The Star reads: “Lions kill 47 sheep“. Yes, real lions slaughtered an entire herd of sheep, plus a cow. Strangely enough, they all ate the cow; but they left the killed sheep untouched. Are Kenyan lions developing a finnicky palate?

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