A decade of mobile money in Kenya has ended up fueling e-commerce and other conveniences

Of the Android apps on my devices that trace their origin in Kenya or are developed by Kenyans, almost all of them have something to do with financial services. Money, basically. Do you know why? Mobile money.

I will be biased on this one since to me, mobile money simply means Safaricom’s M-Pesa, even though that is slowly changing thanks to what M-Pesa has been able to inspire in the country and beyond.

As an enthusiast and big advocate of the Android platform and mobile in general, everything rises and dies by the phone in my hands. As far as I am concerned, and I believe as far as many other users are concerned, there’s been mostly instances of rising and fewer, if any, instances of death. This is because to us, M-Pesa has been that saviour that always shows up. Initially, that would be the case when we least expected it but today, there are no more surprises. We almost always expect it.

Sure, M-Pesa is almost ubiquitous in the country and it’s almost a given that it will come through any day any time but do we pause to think how difficult or inconveniencing doing some things in our mobile lives would be without it?

App purchases

I recently did this article on VPN apps that one may need to have thanks to the rise in concerns over our overall privacy online. Guess what? Months down the line, lots of things have happened that have made me revisit the said article and provide an update. Of the 5 VPN apps that I reviewed and recommended after years of using extensively, only two can still be outrightly recommended while the fate of one is 50/50 and the other two are considered security risks. The one app (out of the two remaining unscathed) that I can recommend without batting an eyelid has a barrier. After one exhausts the maximum allowable 1.5 GB bandwidth, they need a subscription in order to be able to continue enjoying the privacy that comes with VPN apps. Now, how do you go about that?

Easy, by paying for the subscription and living happily ever after, right? Only that it is not so easy.

While a card is necessary in order to purchase a subscription or anything else for that matter through Google Play, what happens if you don’t always have money in the card you’re using for purchases on Google Play? The better question, actually, is how do you make sure you have sufficient funds to make such transactions. For me, going to queue at a bank branch just so that I can deposit Kshs 300 or 500 in order to be able to buy an app on the Play Store or pay for a subscription simply doesn’t cut it. So, then, what makes sense? M-Pesa. Most major cards allow customers to top them up using M-Pesa. This can be done by sending money directly to the mobile account tied to the card in the case of pre-paid debit cards (which I highly recommend) or to the bank account number to which the card is linked. Previously, this could’ve been a bit of an issue thanks to delays and, mostly, high costs levied by both parties to make the magic happen. Today, that is no longer the case. Everything is just convenient. For a people that are not known for being the credit-card-carrying type, there couldn’t have been a better way to do things.

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I keep a number of cards just for getting stuff off the Play Store and this is always a life saver. I guess it is, too, to many that harbour similar habits to mine. 6 or 7 years ago, a lot of this stuff was unheard off. Now if only Safaricom and Google would come together and give us carrier billing so that we don’t have to use intermediaries like cards to get things done.

Product and service purchases

Just like with apps and Google Play subscriptions, being able to get money to one’s means of shopping online in the fastest and easiest way possible is almost priceless. In instances like paying for Viusasa subscriptions, M-Pesa Express comes in and simplifies the whole experience. For some of us, this new development has meant less of a hassle when trying to get home. Instead of having to take the dangerous walk in downtown Nairobi to book and pay for a bus, it’s more convenient to do so from wherever I please from the comfort of my phone where the bus app is installed or, in most cases, where I have my mobile browser on the ready. One moment I am selecting my preferred seat the next I am keying in the confirmation code on the portal to confirm payment and get a virtual ticket. Easy. Yet for about 7 years, before M-Pesa became integrated in such bus systems, I had to spare a few hours in a day just to be able to get to the booking office in order to be able to do the same.

Mobile loans

M-Pesa’s mobile loans and savings product, M-Shwari, is by far the most popular product of its kind that is backed by a mobile network operator in this country.

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In the 5 years that it has been around, M-Shwari has had one of the biggest influences in boosting financial inclusion in the country and elevating the status of M-Pesa entirely. While it is a product offered under M-Pesa, thanks to M-Shwari, even financial institutions that were erstwhile very conservative in their ways, have had to open themselves more to the public so as to win their hearts, trust and confidence again. As a result, we have a slew of banking apps that also offer similar micro-loans to their users, without doubt inspired by M-Shwari.

However, the biggest showcase of the impact that M-Pesa and M-Shwari have had on the financial services industry, at least from an app point of view, has been the persistent ranking of mobile loan apps that mimic a concept that most Kenyans first got a whiff of through M-Shwari, as being the most downloaded and installed. Month in month out, one is likely to find apps developed and funded by both locals and international firms competing for the top slots. Tens of others line up behind them thanks to the high appetite for mobile loans exhibited by the customers. Most of such apps are heavily reliant on M-Pesa. In fact, two of the biggest such apps only work on the M-Pesa platform and are pretty much limited to the Android platform.

Just like it has been able to create an entire ecosystem that comprises business owners, the service’s over 29 million users and the over 130,000 agents, M-Pesa’s impact on how we roll online is huge and is just starting to be felt.

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