The Story Behind the Unintended Success of the Famous M-Pesa Mobile Transfer in Kenya


-Reflecting on the past two decades, it seems that we are constantly caught up in the technical hype cycle. We often rush to embrace the latest innovations without taking the time to understand their origin or impact.

That's why I was delighted to come across Niti Bhan's insightful post about the success of mobile payments in Kenya, which began back in 2007 with Safaricom, a Kenyan mobile network provider. Seventeen years later, no European country has implemented a similar system or mobile wallets. MPesa (Pesa means money in Swahili) was revolutionary because it made payments quick, safe, reliable, and provided access to financial services for the large number of unbanked individuals in African countries. Suddenly, people could securely save their money and now governments can explore new ways of digitally transferring funds for social welfare programs. Bhan notes that this mobile payment service was not initially intended for poverty alleviation, but rather evolved into a means of promoting inclusive finance. Interestingly, Mpesa in South Africa did not achieve the same success despite its good intentions and focus on reaching those least likely to have access to traditional financial services.

It was because Mpesa was launched in Kenya as a general purpose tool – regardless of the relative wealth or poverty of the target audience – that it was adopted by users across Kenya’s demographic spectrum, thus ensuring its eventual success and its subsequent social impact.

This highlights the significance of system analysis and thorough testing when implementing new technologies to ensure their intended impact, which is often overlooked in the development of digital services.

As an added bonus, there is an own story about Safaricom's journey to reclaim the intellectual property rights for Mpesa from Vodafone in 2020.