Tuesday, March 23

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Mobile phones

The presence of advertising in major venues is as good a means as any of judging the strength of any particular business in Kenya. Equity Bank owns most of the billboards. The Daily Nation, the newspaper with the largest circulation, has its name on the welcome signs of all major and minor cities. The most popular outdoor medium by far, though, are buildings themselves. Entire blocks of buildings ranging from closet-sized kiosks to three-story hotels on the highways are dedicated to Bic pens and Omo laundry detergent, and among these, the telecom companies dominate. Nothing is more present than the ripe lime green of Safaricom or the eye-achingly brilliant fuschia of Zain. Even Yu's Christmas pairing of red and green and Orange's orange are more common than the classic red of Coca-Cola, third member of the Holy Trinity of Globalization alongside McDonald's and Nike.

Kenya is totally mobile mad. Everyone has one, and they respect them. I can count the number of Kenyans who have ignored their ringing mobile during a conversation with me on one finger. Maybe I'm just that boring and annoying, but some of them have to be looking for an opportunity to show theirs off. Even a number of the kids at the center have mobiles, about the same quality as classmates were playing Snake on back in sixth grade. They may not have the money to buy call credit, but they can still receive text messages.

It's counter intuitive, certainly. Kenya isn't be Chad, but it's still a Third World nation. The cheapest computer can still cost two-years worth of salary, and those who do have them struggle to be as efficient as an American middle school student. Public lighting is suspect. Universal indoor plumbing is a pipe dream. Among all these technological failures in Kenya, why should the mobile succeed? Mostly because they're bleeding useful. It's a trend throughout the developing world.

Like the Western world, mobiles are so much more than a means of portable and immediate communication here. They may not be iPhones yet, but even the cheapest models are feature full. Whenever a calculation is necessary, out comes the mobile. Flashlights are installed on the tops, far superior for lighting purposes than the screen's backlight. Plug in headphones and the mobile is now a radio.

Utterly fascinating to Demetra, and me the more I think about it, are Safaricom's M-Pesa and Zain's Zap programs. They're banks in miniature. At any kiosk which sells credit (you don't buy calling plans here; you credit an account which is automatically withdrawn from for every text sent and every minute of conversation), you can deposit any amount of money for free. You can then withdraw that money from any other kiosk. Awfully convenient as I think it's literally impossible to throw a rock and not hit someone selling credit. The programs have grown, and it's now possible to transfer funds between accounts, pay utility bills and even buy tickets on Kenya Airways through them. Of course there are fees for most all of these features, and the money never accrues interest, but they're a far sight more cost effective than the real banks. Standard Chartered charges us 1,000 shillings monthly to keep an account with them. To put this in perspective, monthly rent in Githima runs around 1,600 shillings.

It's not just on the personal level that mobiles make a difference. As a friend noted in Charter two years back, mobiles are making a difference in national economies. They reduce inefficiencies. In a nation where the trucks are prone to tipping over and the roads wash out fifteen minutes after the rain starts to fall, it allows arrival times to be calculated on the fly. Within a single city supplies can be found and demands met instantly though it would have been impossible at the turn of the millennium even.

I don't know who invented the mobile, but I'm fairly certain they weren't thinking of improving the economies of the developing world. More likely it was the size of their military contract or the challenge of doing something no one else had. Similarly, I doubt the executives of Safaricom and Zain were thinking of giving the poor a place to save their money in a digital form rather than hard currency. They saw the banks failing to meet the needs of an untapped market and swooped in to take advantage.

The thing is, at no point were any of these people ever thinking “I bet this will make so many lives better” yet mobiles and M-Pesa have arguably done more good for the poorest than decades of aid programs. Mobiles may not be as classy or immediate as handing out scholarships to the brightest students or buying food for the hungry, but they haven't created systemic corruption and national dependency. Not as annoying as Bono, either. Mobiles allow the people to take greater advantage of what they already have rather than demanding what they don't.

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