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This post continues my previous report on my trip to Kenya to see M-PESA, the mobile phone--based money transfer service. Here's the full set.
On our second day, last Tuesday, we flew to Kisumu, a town on Lake Victoria, that vast body of water straddling the borders between Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. There we met Frederik Eijkman, co-founder of a local company called PEP Intermedius. Like M-PESA itself, PEP began with microfinance, in 2004. But when M-PESA came along in 2007, Frederik and the other founder, Paul Otieno, seized the business opportunity. To launch M-PESA, Safaricom needed to quickly build a national network of M-PESA points analogous to Western Union outlets, where people could swap paper and e-money. Today PEP manages just over 100 M-PESA outlets; it owns eight and supports the rest as franchises. PEP outlets compete side-by-side with other M-PESA points.
I first learned about phone-to-phone e-money in 2006 at a conference in the basement of the International Finance Corporation. The impressions made upon me then naturally centered on the phones. In a photograph from the Philippines, a customer and a merchant stood facing on opposite sides of a display case in a food shop, each holding up a phone in order to do their bit of electronic business. Brian Richardson, creator of the phone-based bank WIZZIT in South Africa, pulled a phone out of his pocket and before our eyes, in seconds, transferred money to his wife back home. So in my mind before I went to Kenya, phone banking was electronic banking. Poor countries were leapfrogging the rich, leaving cash behind.
There is some of that going in Kenya, but in Kisumu, and in a paper by Frederik and the Gates Foundation's Ignacio Mas and Jake Kendall, I saw a far richer story.
When the now-dominant methods of microfinance were developed circa 1980, they were what economists call technological breakthroughs. Although they were low-tech in the everyday sense of the word---involving meeting in person, paying in cash, keeping records on paper---they were nevertheless new ways to extract more value from a given amount of labor and capital. Well, not all new: as usual, innovation combined old ingredients in new ways and contexts.