Why Has M-PESA Become So Popular in Kenya?

17 June 2008

It is early morning in Bukura, a small village in Western Kenya. The shop-keeper and his wife are preparing to open their small store, which sells household commodities such as flour and cooking oil. They also offer M-PESA services. There is already a queue outside. A group of about twenty villagers are crowding the entrance. “It is always like this,” the shop-keeper complains while pointing to the crowd. “Since we have become M-PESA agents we have no time to rest. This thing has even over-run our other business”. He then holds up a packet of sugar. “We have not sold any sugar in months. They only want M-PESA”. Not just the Bukura agent has seen a great demand for M-PESA services. Since its introduction in March of 2007, the M-PESA application has had great success all over Kenya. There are currently over 2.3 million registered users. Over 18 Billion Ksh had been moved through the system, via person-to-person transfers.

Some of the work that I have been doing makes several arguments as to why M-PESA has become so popular. Firstly, it is the young, male, urban migrants who are driving the uptake of services – customer adoption. These migrants are what innovation researchers call ‘early adopters’ of a technology. They are usually better educated and earn higher incomes than those in the village. Because these migrants are the senders, they can choose the channel for money transfer. They then influence recipients in the rural area—who are usually female, less educated and poorer—to also use M-PESA. This segment is referred to as the ‘technology laggards’. They are usually the last, and often the least likely, to adopt an innovation.

This research also notes some barriers to adoption. Both agents and customers complain of cash float problems, especially in the rural areas. Because the majority of transactions in the village are withdrawals, agents must maintain their cash float. They do this by making frequent trips to the bank. This can be problematic if the agent is not close to an urban centre, where most banks in Kenya are located. An agent in Malaha, a small village in Western Kenya, commented, “almost every day I ride my bicycle to Kakamega to top-up my float. This takes me almost three hours. I have to leave at 6am because I want to be there when the bank opens. I must then come back again and serve my customers”. When asked if there was any other means of transport to Kakamega, the agent shook his head. He said that he was several kilometres away from the main road. He also said that he could not afford to pay the 200 ksh fee for the matatu (shared taxi).

Despite these cash float problems, the majority of customers in both the urban and rural areas assert that they prefer M-PESA over other money transfer services. This means that M-PESA must be offering them some kind of substantial benefit. In Bukura, this benefit comes in the form of savings on transport. Customers do not need to travel into Kakamega, the nearest town, to access the service. One elderly farmer commented that “I can just walk from my shamba (farm) and get money. I don’t have to spend and go into town. If the agent does not have cash today, then I will come back tomorrow. It is cheaper to wait”. Finding strategies to manage the cash float problem will undoubtedly be one of the greatest challenges for Safaricom. For now, however, it seems like customers are willing to accept the inefficiencies of the service. It is, after all, cheaper to wait.

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