Sunday, November 15, 2009

what M-PESA is not

Over at James Nicoll's blog:
Cellphones don't require landlines to be strung before they can be used and apparently people have been rather cunning about coming up with ways to use them to replace services they otherwise would not have access to:

Some people carry just a card and borrow a phone when needed. Safaricom, in Kenya, has a service called M-Pesa that lets the cell work as an ATM; to send someone money, you text-message the appropriate code to them, and they get cash from a local M-Pesa agent. Cellphone minutes are traded by phone as a cash substitute. Credit card payments are made by cellphone. Remittances from relatives overseas come by cellphone. [...]

It's like the Street finds its own use for technology.

Well, sort of. People to tend to think of the success of mobile banking in the emerging markets as being a triumph of the Bruce Sterling/Kevin Kelley school of thought, at best, or an example of triumphant libertarianism - to hell with those stuffy old international-aid bureaucrats and state-owned telcos!

However, M-PESA was originally a project sponsored by Vodafone's CSR department, and even less fashionably, by the UK Department for International Development. Much of the engineering was carried out by BSS-OSS (Billing Support Subsystem-Operations Support Subsystem) consultants in Newbury, and you literally can't get less favela-chic than telco billing systems engineers*. And Safaricom is a Vodafone partner network, but the main shareholder is the Kenyan Government.

Once they rolled it out, as history relates, all sorts of exciting unauthorised innovation got going. But getting to that point involved a lot of boring, statey, European Union things happening first, including those awful Aid Industry Bureaucrats getting involved.

*Joke: how do you tell an OSS engineer? He used to work in billing but he couldn't stand the excitement. Since M-PESA, though, that's where all the excitement is...

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