This chatbot lets you buy Safaricom airtime via M-PESA effortlessly using Facebook Messenger

We are living in interesting times, that has never been in doubt… but how cool is it to shift from chatting with your best friend online to purchase airtime to chat with another who is not online in a voice call? That, in a nutshell, is what Pia, a chatbot developed by Pythias Labs does.

I bumped on Pia by accident as I made rounds on Facebook at the start of the month (November 2017). The reason I waited this long to share the good news is that it did not work for me back then. However, a prompt along the lines of those desperate emails that Twitter and Facebook send you when you haven’t logged in for quite some time (“hey we’ve missed you” as if they did) made me give it a second look and I was impressed since it worked this time around.

How it works

To get started is easy. Just access the chatbot on Messenger (you’ll need to have the Messenger app installed. That can be done in a few seconds via the Play Store. Or just use the web version of Messenger if you’re on your desktop)

Once you access Pia, you are presented with three options: a tutorial, a switchboard and an option to buy airtime. I went with the last option but you might want to jump in and see the tutorial just to get a hang of things. The switchboard just makes things orderly so you can ignore it and only turn to it when you need change your settings or use other services offered by the chatbot like Pia Places, whatever that is.

Clicking the option to buy airtime brings up another round of options to pick from, who to buy airtime for: yourself or someone else. Pretty much like how we do it using the SIM toolkit or the mySafaricom app, nothing different. The next step, naturally, is to specify the amount of money that you want to top up. Since this is the first time you are doing so that will prompt the bot to remind you that you need to link your mobile phone with Pia so that the magic can happen. A one-time verification text message will then be sent to your phone. Just remember to key in your phone number with the country code prefixed i.e. 254722xxxxxx. It is the failure to input my phone number in that format that led to the verification SMS never arriving in the first place.

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Once the verification text message is received and confirmation done by way of keying it in Messenger, it’s a downhill drive from there onwards.

Even though I like Pia and this whole process, I find that there are too many steps and other than the fact that it may serve well those who live inside Facebook’s ecosystem, it’s still a much easier way to buy airtime using the SIM toolkit or the mySafaricom app instead of a third party (which raises concerns about how your data is handled and what not if you care about such things). However, it is a small part of the process that really impressed me: the ability to repeat transactions. Bought airtime worth Kshs 20 like I did and it ran out as fast as you had it delivered? You can fire up Messenger and click on Repeat Transaction and Pia will swing right back into action. Maybe this is something Safaricom can consider adding to its app as well?

When you’re done getting airtime for yourself or your loved ones, Pia can also deliver news from select news sources like Business Daily and the BBC.

There are references to things like being able to hail Uber cabs using Pia on this Medium article penned by a co-founder but I couldn’t find that functionality anywhere. Either I got things wrong or it doesn’t exist. I think it’s more likely that the latter is the case.

While the Pia chatbot does have other M-PESA services other than airtime purchase, that is the only well-pronounced feature that I found and used fully. Paying bills is currently limited to buying electricity tokens from Kenya Power (it works, though I just tested it by viewing my prepaid account’s status and not buying any tokens) while sending money, peer-to-peer, is listed as a “coming soon” feature. I’ll be keeping an eye on the chatbot to see if it shows up any time soon. If it does then that would be interesting. Though not direct, it would present Kenyans with an option to send money to each other via M-PESA from Messenger. This is significant because Messenger has been toying around with peer-to-peer transactions for a while now but they’re still the preserve of a few and we don’t have a timeline when they’ll become a global feature that even Kenyans can access effortlessly.

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So, yeah, here’s your millionth way of buying airtime through third parties (try out Opay, Mula app…)


Note: this article was penned in November 2017. However, the information contained referring to how the service works is confirmed to be true as of the time you get to read this – past early April 2018.

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