In 2013, the people of Kenya sent each other US$19.6 billion in payments and money transfers.  According to Herbert Wattanga, author of Nairobi County’s Smart21 nomination, the total of their transactions exceeded Kenya’s national budget by more than $1 billion.  And guess what?  Not one of those transactions went through a bank. Instead, all of them went through mobile phones.  

At ICF, we write a lot about the impact of the broadband revolution on every aspect of our lives, and about the urgent need it creates for cities and regions to adapt to its demands.  You would be hard-pressed to find a better example than mobile banking in Kenya – even though it uses a technology many years older than smartphones.

clientuploads/Images/Bell-Blog-Reboot-Comm-2.jpg

In 2007, a mobile carrier called Safaricom introduced a new money transfer service called M-Pesa.  Up to that point, banking in Kenya was largely controlled by foreign banks, which tended to serve only the most affluent Kenyans.  Then the central bank rewrote its regulations in an attempt to expand access to financial services.  One new regulation allowed mobile operators like Safaricom to provide mobile payments.

Safaricom’s move was meant to be business-as-usual: a new service that would help reduce customer churn. It allowed users to load money onto their phones through the same process they used to prepay for airtime.  Money was moved with a simple text message, with each transfer incurring a fee of between $0.25 and $0.70.   The money deposited was held, not by banks, but in an independent trust that Safaricom does not control.

Business-as-usual it was not.  By 2012, there were 17 million M-Pesa accounts generating nearly US$300 million in fee income for Safaricom.  And Safaricom’s success pales in comparison to that of Kenya.  With 70 percent of adult Kenyans – and 50% of the poor – using it, The Economist estimates that M-Pesa has boosted national GDP by as much as 25 percent.  So popular has the service been that it drove an overall increase in mobile penetration from 49% in 2008 to 77% in 2012 – and greater phone penetration alone has generated $2.4 trillion in economic growth, according to a report by Deloitte (Mobile Telephone and Taxation in Kenya 2011).

So if you ever wonder what all the fuss about broadband is really about, M-Pesa offers a clue.  Sure, it’s not broadband – but it is a revolution in online applications.  It makes clear that the same technology bringing you you cute cat videos and spam in your inbox can profoundly change lives – but only in places that are prepared to seize the benefits technology offers.

Robert Bell Robert Bell  |  Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.