This story suggests the enormous possibilities inherent in the new mobile phone technologies and networks. – t.h.g.
How mobile phone banking is empowering the poor
13 Feb 2009 15:11:00 GMT
Written by: Natasha Elkington
Six years ago on a whim, I was lucky enough to buy a farm with two friends in my native Kenya. The farm borders the Shimba Hills National Reserve, high above the coastal plain. It’s an enchanting other world, but also very remote. As I live in Britain at the moment we’ve hired a caretaker, Samuel, to protect the land from squatters and wild game that occasionally breaks through the fence looking for food.
The problem is how to pay Samuel when the nearest bank is 50 km (30 miles) away in Mombasa. The answer – as improbable as it sounds – is by mobile phone. Two years ago, a new phenomenon hit Kenya that allows money to be transferred between people using text messaging called M-PESA (pesa means money in Swahili).
This system, known as “branchless banking”, lets people set up remote bank accounts that are accessed through their mobile phone or other technology.
It’s a financial revolution that has taken Kenya by storm and will probably do the same across the rest of the continent by giving Africa’s poor access to financial services for the first time. Africa has seen phenomenal growth in mobile phone subscribers – with 278 million users by the end of 2007, according to Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID).
M-PESA, which was set up by Vodaphone and funded through DFID, now has 5 million users in Kenya, more than all the bank accounts. It is being expanded to support salary payments, bill payments and social benefit payments. Poverty experts say a lack of access to banking hampers people’s ability to improve their incomes and pay for healthcare and education, whilst holding back countries’ economic growth.
This is true especially in Kenya, where a large part of the population don’t have bank accounts because they live in remote areas, don’t have proper addresses, don’t have funds to maintain an account or don’t have the education to deal with a bank. But with the introduction of M-PESA, people are beginning to feel more financially empowered.
It works like this. A registered user can put money into their account at an M-PESA agent and send it to other mobile phone users by SMS instruction. The recipient can then retrieve the money from another agent. These outlets include local mobile dealers, petrol stations, supermarkets and kiosks.
This service has also literally been a life-saver! Two months ago, Samuel sent a text telling me his wife was having a difficult labour and he had to rush her to hospital. The next text I received was that his wife was in critical condition. Right away I called my friend in Kenya who was already on the case and in a matter of minutes we were able to send money to Samuel whose wife received immediate attention and is on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, the baby could not be saved.
But if we had not been able to send money to Samuel so fast, he would have almost certainly lost his wife too. This vital technology is changing how people in developing countries live their lives, has the potential of easing the burden of poverty and can be a way to advance microfinance projects.
Britain’s International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander announced this week that the government is embarking on a £1.4 million ($2 mln) three-year project that will lay the foundations for financial services to be made available through new and emerging technology across Africa and Asia – including Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh and Ghana.
“A lack of access to finance in some parts of the developing world stifles entrepreneurship, stunts development and leaves people trapped in a poor, cash-only society,” Alexander said. “It is the world’s poorest who could benefit from this most … A rapid increase in access to financial services could lift millions out of poverty and help change their lives forever.”
It is predicted that mobile-phone banking could add as many as a billion banking customers to the system in five years because it is relatively inexpensive to set up and there is no need to invest in new infrastructure because it uses the existing mobile phone network.
From Reuters AlertNet http://lite.alertnet.org/db/blogs/55868/2009/01/13-151104-1.htm