Mobile money platforms key for greater social ties - study

Mobile money platforms are key in promoting cohesion and reducing barriers to social inclusion, a new study by three American university researchers shows. 

Professor Sibel Kusimba of the American University in Washington D, Nitesh Chawla and Yang Yang of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, say the platforms help reinforce pre-existing forms of emotional support and social relationships — like in the case where family and friends bail out each other. 

“Using small and frequent digital money transfers, relatives provide for household and emergency needs, contribute to ceremonies, and help pay school fees and medical bills,” they say in their research paper titled Family networks of mobile money in Kenya. Information Technologies & International Development.’

“We find that digital money transfers follow and reinforce preexisting forms of emotional support and social relationships.”  

Safaricom’s phone-based peer to peer money transfer service M-Pesa launched in the country in 2007, inspiring other providers to follow suit.


Kenya has 31.6 million mobile money users who transact across six major platforms — M- Pesa, MobiKash, Airtel Money, Orange Money, Tangaza, and Equitel—backed by a network of 143,946 agents as at December 2015, according to Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) statistics.

The latest CBK data shows that mobile payments grew by 19 per cent to gross Sh2.8 trillion in the period to December 2015 compared to Sh2.3 trillion a year earlier.

“Although bill payment, e-commerce, and banking services are increasingly available over mobile phones in Kenya, money transfer to friends and relatives is by far the most often used service,” says the report. 

“The transfers,” it adds “strengthen maternal kinship ties as well as relationships among siblings and cousins.”  

Reciprocal pathways

The study shows that mobile money circulates along relatively dense and reciprocal pathways. 

“Money transfer networks are based on reciprocal ties and show many connections among individuals. Many urban migrants send money home in lieu of travelling to attend a wedding or funeral, feeling the money to be more “useful” to relatives at home.” 

The researchers sampled individuals from 12 non-intersecting family groups in Western Kenya. They conducted the study in Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia counties from 2012 to 2014 drawing participants from Naitiri, Kimilili and Bungoma towns. 

The participants belonging to social networks of between eight to 70 people participated in ethnographic interviews and social network analysis (SNA). 

The research was supported by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at the University of California, Irvine. 

The paper shows mobile money transfer has amplified existing practices of reciprocity, obligation, belonging and exclusion in Kenya. 

Central individuals

In the entire social networks, some individuals are “central” as they have more connections to others while others are brokers. 

For instance Sarah (a respondent), is a resident of Kimilili aged 36. She is a widow from a polygamous marriage and was driven away by her co-wives from her matrimonial home. 

Her elder sister Joyce who is married to a Dutch, resides in Netherlands and occasionally remits money back home to Sarah. 

Dependants of Sarah including her uncle, her brother, her nieces and a friend benefit from the remittance. 
In this case, Sarah is “central” in the family network of the mobile money transfer. Individuals of varying age and gender may become central in their networks 

Development potential

The don’s study shows mobile phones and mobile money have a high potential for promoting accelerated development and are useful in shaping direct personal ties with others. 

It revealed that money transfer networks are diverse in the types of kin who participate, underlining the importance of siblings, cousins, and parents, often mothers and maternal kin.

 Kenya tops the globe with the highest number of adults holding a mobile money account at 58 per cent, followed by Somalia’s 37 per cent — because of its well-entrenched hawala system — Uganda at 35 per cent and Tanzania at 32 per cent, according to the World Bank 2014 Global Findex report.