January 2, 2008 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
Take a country like Kenya. Here, an innovative mobile phone money transfer service called M-PESA is transforming the lives of thousands of Kenyans, many of whom do not even own a bank account because either they can't afford to, or even if they can, there's no bank nearby. In fact, Kenya's banking infrastructure is so poor that it doesn't reach almost 80% of adult Kenyans.
Take the example of Mwaka Howaida. He is a bar owner who runs his bar in Meru, a small town nearly 100 miles away from the nearest trading centre Nyeri.
Whenever Mwaka needs his beer stock to be replenished, his supplier insists that payment in full is either made in advance, or paid in cash at the time of delivery . Mwaka does not have a bank account. And the fact that the limited reach of law and order in Kenya means that making cash payments for deliveries isn't a smart alternative. Lorry driver-highway robberies are rampant. So up to now, the only option available to Mwaka was a day-long bus ride (with cash) to Nyeri where he could pay his supplier in advance (and lose a day's revenue in the process).
Now however, Mwaka pays on delivery through a few simple menu instructions on his mobile phone. He has recently opened an M-PESA account for free with his nearest Safaricom dealer. And whenever he needs to pay his supplier, he deposits cash in his airtime account, which is very similar to topping up his prepaid mobile phone card, and keys in an SMS text message instructing MPESA to transfer money to his supplier's M-PESA account. This secured real-time fund transfer costs Mwaka less than a dollar.
"The product concept is very simple," says Nick Hughes, the executive at Vodafone who was principal implementer of M-PESA. A customer can use his or her mobile phone to move money quickly, securely, and across great distances, directly to another mobile phone user, which makes "M-PESA service is fast, secure, and very cost-effective," says Hughes.
But those are not the only features that make this service attractive to the Kenyans. Its biggest attraction is that it is aimed at mobile customers who do not have a bank account, typically because they do not have access to a bank, or because they do not have sufficient income to justify a bank account. "The system provides money transfers [just] as banks do in the developed world," says Hughes.
Small wonder then that M-PESA "is opening up new opportunities all over Kenya," says Hughes. Safaricom, the sole operator of M-PESA claims that, since its launch in February last year, the system has already registered over 200,000 customers and "keeps growing" with the growth of mobile phones in Kenya.
Like most of Africa, mobile phone growth in Kenya, has been remarkable. According to Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Trust, established to support the development of financial markets in Kenya, even though just 19% of the adult Kenyans own bank accounts, over 54% of the adult -- including even the rural poor -- own mobile phones. In June 1999 Kenya had just 15,000 mobile subscribers. But today, according to statistics from the Communication Commission of Kenya, there are more 8 million subscribers out of a population