When you think Africa you might not think cell phones. You should though! In Kenya especially they are doing some really cool, innovative things with cell phones. In fact, there are a few ways I wish my North American cell phone service could be more like the Kenyan system…
1. Cheaper service
Have you noticed how expensive cell phone plans are in the US? Of course you have! Even the “pay as you go” plans can have $10/month minimums. In 2013, 70% of Kenyans had cell phones. Once you purchase the phone in Kenya, you can buy of “air time” to “top up” your account balance. Unlike the US, these airtime minutes are sold in increments of about 50 cents to $20.
The Kenyan system is truly pay as you go. If you can only afford 50 cents of airtime you can buy just the amount needed for that one important call. In the US it seems that monthly minimums keeps rising, giving me much more than I need each month.
2. Sending money
A banking revolution is happening in Kenya – and it’s happening because of cell phones. About 70% of Kenyans do not have access to a bank. They DO have cell phones though. Enter M-Pesa! M-Pesa allows people to transfer money through their cell phones.
The sender brings money directly to an M-Pesa dealer (which operate out of city grocery stores and the tiniest rural kiosks) and gives the dealer the cell phone number of the receiver. Then the receiver gets a text saying the money is available. They go to their local M-Pesa dealer and pick up the cash! Whereas before a daughter working in the city might’ve had to travel hours by bus to bring cash to her parents in the country, now she can transfer it instantly to them.
We are even using M-Pesa for SIA! We can make one bank transfer to Kenya and then have the Small Business Fund coordinators M-Pesa the money to each other. Each bank transfer costs us $10. Each M-Pesa transfer costs just $2-3.
3. Shopping around
Most Kenyans have non-smart phones – phones for texting and calling, rather than easy internet use – and most have space for two different SIM cards. This means they can switch between cell phone carriers as suits their needs. Airtel, Orange, and Safaricom are the three most popular carriers and each have different deals and rates for different times. When you have both an Airtel and a Safaricom SIM card, you can shift to use whichever has cheaper evening calls or cheaper calls within the carrier network. This flexibility seems like a dream for those of us locked into one carrier based on the phone or a 2-year contract!
Bonus: Sharing opportunities
As I blogged about last week, people are excited about electricity coming to Manyamula, Malawi. So far, just a few shops have access to the electrical wires, and others are using solar power. Both are highly valued because electricity is necessary to charge all these cell phones! When we visited Winkly Mahowe he showed us his solar panel connected to a power strip, where he allows neighbors to charge their cell phones for free. Charging is also a viable SBF business- we saw this crowded power source in one of the Manyamula market shops.