No Wallet. No Cash. No Cards. No Problem (In Kenya At Least, If You Have M-Pesa)

It was a day like any other day last week. I got ready early in the morning and left before 6.00 am to get to a breakfast meeting in Nairobi’s Upper Hill area. In the rush to leave the house I did not realize I had left my wallet which had all of the little cash I carry these days as well as my debit and credit cards. I only realized that I had forgotten it when I got to the petrol station en route to my meeting. They had already filled up my fuel tank and as I reached for my wallet I realized it was not there! Did I freak out? Yes, for a microsecond. Then Nada. Nothing to fear. I had my phone, after all, with M-Pesa. I paid for the fuel and everything proceeded as usual.

I arrived at the Java House in Upper Hill and had the meeting with breakfast as planned and we discussed matters business. Nothing to panic about since I had M-Pesa to pay the bill. I then proceeded to the next meeting at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) which I found out had been canceled when I got there. As I proceeded to leave the airport, I realized that I would have to pay for parking, in cash (one of the few things that still need cash in Kenya these days which is bizarre if you ask me). No problem. I went to one of the many M-Pesa Agents at JKIA, withdraw some cash and paid for parking. Easy. Peasy. Peculiar.

The rest of the day went in a flash. I bought more airtime and a data bundle for my phone using M-Pesa. I paid for lunch using M-Pesa. I topped up a credit card for my online payments using M-Pesa. I paid the barber for my haircut using (you guessed it!) M-Pesa. Basically, there was (almost) not a single thing on a normal day that I could not pay for using M-Pesa. Kenya, quite simply, runs on M-Pesa as the de facto non-cash payment medium. It’s ubiquitous and, quite simply, just works.

To get a sense of how many payments we make using M-Pesa in Kenya, one just needs to look at their monthly M-Pesa statement(s) to see how much money they use on M-Pesa payments for everything in their lives. Indeed, life in Kenya for the average consumer would be quite different without M-Pesa – it would be hugely inconvenient and massively time-consuming to do things as we did in the good old days. M-Pesa is so important that some consumers say it’s the only reason why they still have a Safaricom line since the competition offers more affordable voice and data services (just ask any millennial, also known as the ones with the dreadlocks and tattoos, and they will tell you so!).

The success story that is M-Pesa is one that’s been told many times. It’s the currency of digital transactions in Kenya and without M-Pesa the economy would take a major hit. I am personally very keen to see what M-Pesa’s next act will be given the personal experience I had last week that led me to a revelation – If M-Pesa is so popular what shape and form could it take beyond the mobile phone? It seems inevitable that M-Pesa will transcend the mobile phone and could be linked to our biometrics. This could unlock good (and bad) things but would be perfect for the day(s) when we finally forget our wallets, cash, credit cards, debit cards and yes, even our mobile phones.

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