Time to meet the real M-PESA?

m-Pesa? m-PESA? mPESA? MPESA? mpesa? Putting the actual spelling to one side for a moment, there can be few more talked about yet least understood mobile services than M-PESA (yes, that’s how you’re supposed to spell it. I think). Misunderstanding, misinformation and, in some cases urban myths abound – everything from its roots and implementation to the percentage of Kenyan GDP now passing through the service. Despite this, M-PESA has come to dominate discussions in the ICT4D and m4d communities (despite arguably not being a development tool at all. But that’s another debate).
M-PESA has become so dominant, in fact, that we’re now at the stage that in increasing numbers of meetings, workshops and conferences I attend, any talk of it is banned.
M-PESA is an undeniable Kenyan success story, but not for the reasons many people think. The technology component of M-PESA was developed far away in Cambridge, England (my home town) with UK Government and Vodafone money. M-PESA is not a Kenyan or African innovation if you measure it in technology terms. But technology is often the easy bit, and what does make M-PESA a Kenyan success story is its implementation. Key ingredients like graft, determination, luck, naivety and a receptive population starved of any meaningful access to bank accounts or financial services created a perfect storm for the launch of the service. A storm, let’s remember, which is yet to hit other countries with the same intensity, many of whom have struggled to adopt M-PESA or related platforms as successfully. So far, anyway.
The very idea for M-PESA is also disputed. Despite the technology being developed in the UK, some believe that it was indeed a Kenyan who had the original idea. This “Is M-Pesa really Kenyan or British?” post on humanipo goes into a little further detail. You could argue that none of this really matters, of course. Another debate.

On top of all that, barely a week goes by when my Twitter stream isn’t hit with a claim that 10%, 25% or even 50% of Kenya’s GDP passes through M-PESA. The number – whatever it is – is astonishing. The one I’ve quoted more recently is “50% by the end of 2013″ – heard at a conference in Amsterdam last autumn. I have no idea whether it’s right or not, but going by the percentage range in the tweets very few other people are either.
If, like me, you think it’s time to debunk some of these myths and inaccuracies and get the inside story of how M-PESA came about, then we’re in luck.

A couple of weeks ago Chris Locke, Managing Director of the GSMA Development Fund, gave me a copy of a book I didn’t know existed. “Money, Real Quick: Kenya’s Disruptive Mobile Money Innovation” is a great read if you’re one of the few people new to M-PESA, or you’re one of the majority who thought you knew it. The book covers everything from the seed of the idea, the importance of the human network of M-PESA agents (often forgotten in the technology-dominated discussion), what mobile money means to Kenya’s finance and banking industry, it’s impact, and what the future may look like. The book also touches on innovation more broadly, and how M-PESA speaks of the new-found appetite for innovation in the country.
I’m not sure if this book did come out in 2012 as Amazon claims, but regardless it’s incredibly useful if you think, after six years, it’s time to meet the real M-PESA. If you do you can find it on Amazon here.