Android users in Kenya can now pay for apps and subscriptions on the Play Store using M-Pesa

It is now possible to pay for premium applications on the Google Play Store using Safaricom’s mobile money platform M-Pesa, in Kenya.

Before this new development, Kenyans had to make do with just two means of getting Google Play credit: by use of either credit/debit cards or vouchers. Both options were never ideal.

First things first, Kenya is not a card-carrying country. Kenya is, by all means when it comes to financial systems, a mobile-first nation thanks to the mobile money revolution heralded by Safaricom’s M-Pesa which started out as a mobile money transfer service but has since transformed over the years into a platform of its own.

According to data from the Central Bank of Kenya, just 215.57 million card transactions were made last year (2017), a far cry from the 1.54 billion transactions conducted via mobile phones in the same year.

Getting Google Play vouchers in the country is not easy and when one does find them, they’re very expensive. The other means of buying Google Play gift cards or vouchers is online but wait a moment, that needs one to have a card, which is what we’re trying to avoid by going for vouchers. Sigh.

Android device users in other countries like India, the Philippines and other places where the use of cards is also not as common have been able to make purchases on Google’s content store using carrier billing i.e. the cost of the apps is deducted directly from one’s mobile credit or included in their monthly phone bill by their operator. Microsoft pioneered carrier/operator billing in Kenya at the height of its strong push for Windows Phone in mid-2014. Another player, Fortumo, started a similar push 3 years ago but we have not heard much about them ever since and, for all we know and care, they’ve not been able to make a dent in the market. Safaricom went with rival DOCOMO Digital for the integration with Google Play’s payments interface.

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This is why being able to make purchases on Google Play using mobile money/M-Pesa, the first time this is happening anywhere in the world, is a big deal. With just that one move, Google has opened up access to premium apps to a big chunk of the local population who rely on their handy Android smartphones and tablets for their day-to-day operations.

The process, which as you will see below is easy, is made possible by use of M-Pesa Xpress, which is, basically, M-Pesa as we know it but tailored for online transactions i.e. bypassing the need for a user to input a “Pay Bill” or “Till Number” as is the case for other M-Pesa transactions. M-Pesa Xpress has already been deployed in a number of other services like Viusasa and Safaricom’s own e-commerce platform, Masoko.

How to activate M-Pesa Xpress billing

  • Open the Play Store
  • Swipe from left to right to reveal the menu
  • Go to Account
  • Go to Payment methods
  • Select Use M-PESA Xpress billing

How to use it

  • On the Play Store, identify an app you want to buy
  • Click on the price
  • Click “buy”
  • Click Payment methods and select M-PESA Xpress
  • You will be redirected to the SIM toolkit, validate the transaction by keying in the M-Pesa PIN
  • Wait for the app to finish installing and enjoy!

Note: The process is the same when paying for subscriptions or making in-app purchases.

It’s that simple!

The rider here is that just like when activating Songa, the new music streaming service from Safaricom, you will need to dump any extra SIMs in your device. Failure to do so, at least in my experience, results in the activation process failing. This, of course, is not Safaricom’s fault. It has everything to do with how Google identifies devices on Google Play. It goes without saying that paying via M-Pesa is limited to Safaricom subscribers and that wasn’t going to change with this, anyway.

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One interesting thing to note is that this development comes just about a week since some Kenyans started noticing that they were now able to access Google Play Music.

The only thing that I don’t like so far, as you can notice from the above screenshots, is the additional transaction charge. Kshs 22 for a transaction of Kshs 300 is a lot of money, more so to the kind of people that Google is targeting with this move. For those of us who have been using cards to pay for apps and other services on the Play Store, since billing is done using local currency, the charges are exact, nothing more, nothing less. There are no currency conversion charges and those other hoops we have to go through when making purchases online. The same should be the case for M-Pesa Xpress billing. It is not and that’s quite a bummer.

The question at the back of my head now is, is this going to end app piracy in the country?

UPDATE – 17th March 2018

There are no additional transaction charges anymore. Yaaay!

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at]