After 10 years success, M-Pesa treads uncertain path

Former Safaricom chief executive Michael
Former Safaricom chief executive Michael Joseph. FILE PHOTO |  NMG

Martin Mburu was one of the few Kenyans to use M-Pesa on the day it launched 10 years ago.

He never expected that M-Pesa would become anything more than an application that he could use to impress his friends with his tech-savviness.

“You know we were just using it for fun, not much more. We just wanted to see what it was and maybe send some money to the rural relatives,” says the Thika resident.

A decade later, Mr Mburu runs a restaurant and he uses M-Pesa to receive payments from customers and to manage Yummy Pizza’s finances.

Mr Mburu’s experiences with M-Pesa are reflective of the journey the mobile money application has taken in the country.

Today, M-Pesa has become a force to be reckoned with in Kenya’s financial services sector and is today entering a second decade of operation that is tinged with competition and regulatory uncertainties.

Low expectations

Mr Mburu was not alone in his low expectations of the mobile money application. 

The launch of the product was a low-key event on the morning of Tuesday March 06, 2007 when the then Safaricom chief executive Michael Joseph  introduced Kenyans to the new money transfer service.

The technology was financially backed by the UK government and Safaricom shareholder, Vodafone.

No one expected much of M-Pesa back then, not even journalists.

The Daily Nation tucked news of the product’s launch in a small story on page 34 of the newspaper.

It didn’t take long for M-Pesa to exceed expectations. The goal was to sign up 300,000 subscribers by the end of the first year. 

Within one month, 20,000 people had signed up to the service. Within a year this number had grown 100-fold to two million.

In a decade, the number of M-Pesa subscribers has grown to 16.6 million.

Range of services

Last year, Sh5.34 trillion was moved via M-Pesa in a range of services that includes person to person transfers, bill payment and international money transfers.

In 2014, Safaricom went into business with the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) to launch the lending service M-Shwari. A year later a similar partnership was launched with the Kenya Commercial Bank.

This first decade of M-Pesa has often been described in positively hyperbolic terms — it has revolutionised financial services in Kenya with recent research showing that it has lifted women out of poverty. 

The story of M-Pesa’s growth is also closely associated with the narrative of Kenya as a technology hub, Africa’s silicon savannah.

But this 10-year journey has not been without its own tumult.

Fights over and about M-Pesa started even before the dust properly settled on the product’s launch.

There were concerns that M-Pesa would be a threat to the banking sector. Within months of its launch, Safaricom rival Celtel launched its own service.

It is perhaps this inability of M-Pesa rival products to succeed that has precipitated the largest battles over the product.

Level playing field

Other mobile money operators in Kenya have challenged M-Pesa’s dominance in the market calling for the government to level the playing field.

This levelling has come in inches. It is now illegal for Kenyan operators to demand that their agents remain exclusive to their own products. 

The stage is now being set for perhaps Kenya’s largest battle regarding the competitiveness of M-Pesa.

Recently a draft report on the competitiveness of the telecommunication market in Kenya called for M-Pesa to be split from Safaricom in order to make the environment more competitive.

Gem Member of Parliament Jakoyo Midiwo has also backed these suggestions, introducing parliamentary legislation that would see Safaricom and M-Pesa split.

However, the government has been on Safaricom’s corner, with the ministry of information indicating that it does not favour a forced split of the company.

As M-Pesa embarks on its second decade, the future is perhaps just uncertain as it was in 2007.