The impact of mobile telephony on poor people’s access to the market… and finance

Keith Hart from the Open Antropology Cooperative is an Antropologist interested on the study of the impact mobile technology on poor people´s access to the market. I find his work of outmost interest, thus I enclose a note on his recent writtings on Africa. Hart explains that the Maurer’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at UC Irvine has received a grant from the Gates Foundation to explore, among other things, the impact of mobile telephony on poor people’s access to and use of money. The focus region is East Africa, and Kenya in particular, recently emerged as place for world’s leading innovation in this area. While Africans largely missed out on the infrastructure of electricity grids, they have leaped forward on mobile phones. These might easily have a built-in payment system whose potential has been blocked in more advanced economies by entrenched financial interests.

“At a time when the hardware manufacturers in the rich countries are wondering how to sell more and fancier computers in a sated market, Kenyans have taken the lead in adapting cheap old machines for use by the world’s poor masses“, explains Hart. Nowhere else has the use of mobile phones for banking, commercial and administrative purposes been taken further than there. The history of development in this area has not been long: M-PESA (short for mobile money in Swahili) was launched by the Kenyan affiliate of Vodafone  in March 2007. It quickly captured a share of the market for cash transfers and grew very rapidly, with 6.5 million subscribers by May 2009 and 2 million daily transactions in Kenya alone. In December 2008, a group of banks successfully lobbied for an audit of M-PESA, in an attempt to slow down its growth; but the audit found that the service was robust.

Keith Hart explians other aspects to this technological advancement: “There is a lot more to this revolution than just banking. Instead of walking to a distant town and queuing to pay taxes and fees, often unsuccessfully, people can now pay them instantly with their mobile phones. Relatives of the victims of road accidents in remote areas can buy blood to be sent from a regional hospital in time to save lives. Farmers can check market prices around the country before deciding when and where to send their produce for sale. Families dispersed by migration can keep in touch by phone, using highly sophisticated methods at little or no cost. Now this is a financial revolution that anthropologists ought to have plenty to say about. And not just because it is in an exotic part of the world.”

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