Power and Technology Take a Turn for the Worse

Power and Technology Take a Turn for the Worse

Mobile money disappoints.

This morning responding to a plea from a savings group activist in Kenya, I tried to flash some money. The elections, it seems have produced a winner: a suspect accused by the International Criminal Court for supporting death squads in a previous election.  Preparing for violence (the results are contested), the activist wanted to stoke savings group funds. 

I realize group purists would counsel me against such actions (never, ever contribute to group funds), however I decided to act against the prevailing dogma and send money.  And besides, the chilling subtext of his request was, “Help us, we are frightened.”

Just a few months ago, I was able to go to a local Rite Aid pharmacy, fill out a simple form, swipe my debit card, and receive a pleasant ding-ding on my cell phone. An SMS appeared telling me my funds had transferred. Simultaneously, the savings group activist would receive an alert signaling him to pick up his money at any M-PESA kiosk. For those who might not know such kiosks are located in every Kenyan nook and cranny.

To send money today, I had to sit for a good while at a counter as I followed complicated phone prompts, wrote down a thicket of code, and spoke to a representative because, for mysterious reasons, sending to Kenya requires speaking to a representative. I then had to take a form to the cashier and pay, which generated a 14-inch long receipt laced with multiple numbers. After much scrutiny, like a good cryptologist, I found the cipher needed on the receipt. It was my responsibility to communicate all this to the receiver. Because I don’t trust international texts, I used email.

Complicating matters is the fact that the activist can no longer retrieve funds from an M-PESA kiosk. Instead, he must go to Western Union, with far fewer touch points.  Worse, he won’t know he even has the money until he sees my email, and his access is limited. (I did at least send a text telling him to check his email.) 

One can hear the groans of muscled mobile gladiators as they wage their “instant money” turf wars.  Yesterday, M-PESA was in, today, it’s out. Visa, MasterCard is in, Western Union is in. Tomorrow, who is in or out? The net result is that convenience has taken a step backward. Is it better than the olden days when cash was sent on a plane? Sure. But is it better than the olden days when telexes were sent via Western Union? Barely. And it is certainly less convenient than just a few months ago. No wonder the average person doesn’t love mobile money (the guy at the Rite Aid counter said, “I hate mobile money.” This is the second time he has said this to me). No wonder, it is not very loveable. 

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