Kenya Dispatch: The Anticlimax of M-PESA

M-PESA to the Rescue – ICT4D at its Best

The US Senate Chambers. A corporate board meeting. A new car.

Three seemingly random sentence fragments – right?

Not to me. These all share something in common – all are supposed to be grand, life-changing or at least out of the ordinary. Yet when you see the US Senate Chambers on an average day, they are half empty, mostly procedural and somewhat dispiriting for those political science majors out there (myself included).

A corporate board meeting, similarly, is nothing short of average. Under informed directors, over stressed presenters and all too often, dubious decision making. Average, or worse, if you ask me. And while a new car may retain its smell for a few days, after a week, it just feels normal to drive.

So what does this have to do with me, and my trip to Kenya?

Since its introduction in 2006, I have been obsessing over an innovative little cell phone service called M-PESA. Launched by Safaricom – Vodafone’s subsidiary in East Africa – the M-PESA service allows Safaricom customers to transfer phone credit wirelessly, through SMS. Here’s a longer description of how it works – simply put, you SMS 100 shillings and a special code to your friend’s phone, and he will receive 100 shillings of credit.

It’s pretty revolutionary, because it allows anyone with a mobile phone to have a way to store cash, or at least value. For most who live at the bottom of the economic pyramid, M-PESA is close as one gets to a bank account – which we in the west tend to take for granted.

I remember when M-PESA was launched; I wrote about it on NextBillion at the time, and updated readers regularly on the service’s progress. I was definitely an M-PESA geek – I thought the service was amazing.

Fast forward to this past Sunday. I am in the Gigiri section of Nairobi, an upscale, leafy neighborhood home to many embassies, constabularies, consulates and UN offices. Every weekend, a dedicated group of ultimate Frisbee players gather on a field inside the UN complex for a spirited, fast-paced game. An avid ultimate player myself, I jumped at the opportunity to play some disc in a new city – especially when it’s about 35 degrees back in New York right now!

Towards the end of the game, I asked around – was anyone going towards the east side of town, where I am staying? “Sorry, no man – we live around here.” “Dude, next week, I’m going that way – but not tonight.” Etc.

Simple, and no worries, I thought – I’ll just call the same taxi that took me up here. He can come pick me up and what’s more, he already knows where I am.

Imagine my chagrin – and embarrassment – when I attempted to call the cab and got an error message on my phone: “You have insufficient funds to perform this action.” Oh no, I thought – I was going to have to ask one of these very nice strangers to use their phone for a minute. Not too big a deal, but embarrassing nonetheless – especially when you’re the new guy.

I turned to my right, where Mike – an Australian journalist and a helluva ultimate player – was drinking some water. “Hey Mike,” I asked, “Could I borrow your phone a sec? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve run out of credit on my phone.”

“Uh, sure.” Mike hesitated. “Do you have Safaricom, by chance?”

“Uh, yes.” This time, I hesitated. “Why?”

“Well mate, I can M-PESA you some credit, if you want.”

Lightbulbs! Soaring, orchestral music! Fireworks! I WAS ABOUT TO USE M-PESA. I could hardly contain my excitement, humongous bottom-of-the-pyramid nerd that I am.  I tried to look cool.  I think I failed, if Mike’s raised eyebrows were any indication.

Anyway, I gave Mike 100 KSH (about $1.33) and he sent me a SMS – next thing I knew, I had the cab on the way and a new experience under my belt.

Having known of M-PESA for years, I never thought my first experience with it would be so, well…mundane. But that’s my point. Just like the Senate, or a board meeting or a new car, this thing that I had held in such high esteem for so long had turned out to be rather ordinary. On the other hand, that’s the beauty of it – M-PESA is so simple (and profitable for Safaricom, to boot) that it is used by millions a day here in Kenya, and is being rolled out across East and Southern Africa.

And, to its credit, M-PESA got me home that night – can’t say THAT for the US Senate, now can you!?

Other random highlights and observations from my Nairobi stay thus far:

  • “Ordinary” Kenyans are incredibly friendly, open and helpful. The cab drivers here do not try to rip you off, they wait for you if necessary, and they want you to sit in the front seat (which I like better). The guys at 24/7 cab service are the best; use them if you come to Nairobi.
  • Playing ultimate at 5,000+ feet elevation is an experience. I recommend trying it when really jet-lagged, on your first day after arriving!

I have spent most of my time with Acumen Fund folks – and the “social enterprise” / bottom of the pyramid universe is incredibly small. I have already met at least a dozen new people who know someone I know or vice versa. A great community.

The Ethiopian food is awesome here – and some Ethiopian guys I was out with on Saturday night can do this wicked cool dance involving some kind of shoulder shaking and a lustful stare. It would absolutely kill in the US – ladies, be warned. These dudes not only THINK they can dance – they CAN.

On my first night in Kenya, I was in a cab with my colleagues Ajay and Amon. We were stopped at a police roadblock; the officer attempted to extort a bribe from Ajay and me for not having our passports on our persons. Ajay firmly but politely refused, and we went on our way. A way of life here, evidently – gotta be vigilant.

It was absolutely incredible to show up unannounced and unknown to an ultimate game and feel so welcome right away. There is something about the ultimate community that is irreplaceable. I only wish I had room to bring my cleats in my luggage – I played in sneakers instead!!

That’s it for me. I’m in Kenya until 3/16 – in the meantime, drop me a line if you want my mobile no. here.  Incoming calls are free (hint!) and we’re 8 hours ahead of the east coast.  I’m also on Skype, gmail, etc.


About Rob

Twitter @robertkatz
This entry was posted in Kenya, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Kenya Dispatch: The Anticlimax of M-PESA

  1. Judith Katz says:

    Hi Rob,

    Thanks for the post. What is your skype name? Mine is judith.l.katz

  2. Mom says:


    Love your post! Your “a-ha” moment with the cellphone service is a story you’ll tell over and over; drives home the whole point of the enterprises you are promoting.

    Talked about you, your work, and your travels today at a LaSalle University IT Panel Discussion. Dad recommended me and attended too! One of the other presenters is a very interesting woman: an attorney, investor, entrepreneur, and now, Asst. Dir. of MBA programs @ LaSalle. She would love to have you talk with her Capstone class; maybe we can arrange a home-cooked meal along with some Acumen Fund goodwill.

    It is raining and yucky (tech. term) – scheduled to last until Saturday. Pot holes and coal ash will make for bumpy travels on our road bikes. More time for us to get fit, which we both need…

    When should we arrange for a phone call? Weekend? Weeknight? Looking forward to hearing more about life in Kenya…xxxooomom

  3. Grands says:

    HI Rob!!
    Grandpa finally read your 1st blog.and before I start dinner,wanted to drop you a line.
    \We are both SO impressed with your descriptions of your time there.
    We heard the Ambassador to the US from Kenya,on Monday eve.
    Short man,very shiny ,and DARK face.
    Sense of humor,sometimes hard to understand.
    Deflected questions that concerned the latest political situations,but there were few hostile ones.
    We are OK-only 1 inch of powder this AM- a mere nothing!!
    Stay safe,and have a good weekend!!
    Love, Grandma and Grandpa

  4. Grands says:

    I hope that you can get the comment I hope was recorded!!

  5. maina says:

    Hi there …
    Just a small correction – Mpesa started in 2007 march i believe, and was this week launched in south africa.
    great blog


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