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The resilience of paper in Kenya

posted Dec 10, 2013, 1:12 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From CEME Inclusive Commerce blog, 7 December 2013]

With M-PESA and the whirl of innovations that it has triggered, there is no doubt that Kenyan payments are becoming more electronic. But, at the same time, are they any less paper-based? It’s hard to argue that is the case, if one looks at the Central Bank’s data. (Currency and GDP are from its statistical bulletins, and check volumes are from its Annual Reports; and remember that M-PESA was launched in April 2007).

[Click here to view charts.]

The value of currency in circulation has remained essentially flat, especially if you discount the 2007 high blip (I doubt that M-PESA’s cash-busting bang was largest during its first nine months of operation). Likewise, the volume of checks is on an exceedingly gentle decline. The average check value has dropped quite significantly, but surely that’s due to competition from electronic funds transfers at the high value end rather than from M-PESA with its small-ticket transactions.

To me this lack of visible impact on paper highlights the two key pending transitions that M-PESA –and mobile money more generally—needs to undergo.

First, customers need to see value in storing their balances electronically. As long as most customers have the practice of withdrawing any electronic money they receive immediately and in full, M-PESA will remain essentially a cash-to-cash service, and as such it sustains rather than reduces the role of cash in the economy.  (My recent mantras: M-PESA is better cash, not better than cash and you can’t go cash-lite on empty accounts.)

Second, businesses need to see mobile money as an easier way not only of paying and getting paid, but also of managing the information around those payments. It needs to link with order management, invoicing, accounting, reconciliations; possibly even inventory and fleet management. Mobile money needs to have the kind of flexible application programming interfaces that allows corporates to handle transaction flows seamlessly within their own systems rather than as a separate universe of transactions. It must solve basic trust issues that arise when there is no prior relationship between buyer and seller. (My recent mantras: solve business paint points around mobile payments and think of cash as a highly-evolved visual-acceptance payment instrument.)

Without these two transitions, to more electronic storage of value and flexible interfaces into business IT systems, mobile money will continue to be an extremely useful extension of the Kenyan payments system, but it will hardly be at the core of it. The core remains very paper-centric.