In the beginning, we counted the number of new M-Pesa customers every day

Friday March 17 2017

A person uses the M-Pesa money transfer service. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A person uses the M-Pesa money transfer service. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By MICHAEL JOSEPH
More by this Author

When Nick Hughes from Vodafone asked me if they could trial an innovative idea of using the mobile phone for the dissemination and repayment of micro-finance loans in Kenya, I never knew, by consenting, that this would be the start of a worldwide social and financial revolution with roots in Kenya.

The beginnings were not tentative but deliberately aggressive with stretch targets that no one believed they could meet. The team grew weary of the everyday ritual of me asking how many subscribers they had signed up the previous day. The traditional Safaricom airtime agents disparaged this new idea and wanted nothing to do with it. My chief financial officer despaired over the rising costs and my Vodafone bosses thought I was becoming too distracted over this new “invention”.

But the numbers grew and people began to use M-Pesa to send money home. The banks began to get worried and started to ask difficult questions of the Minister of Finance in Parliament and elsewhere. Also the system broke down almost every day, so much so that I went to visit the company that provided the hardware and software and found, to my horror, that our entire M-Pesa system was housed in a box that sat on top of a filing cabinet in the dusty corner of some open plan office with no alarms, backups or proper power supplies!

SEE MINISTER

When the pressure from the banks became intense, I went to see the minister, Mr John Michuki, early one morning and showed him how he could pay his farm workers from his office. He immediately became a convert and a great public supporter which scuppered the banks’ move to sabotage M-Pesa.

We then introduced M-Pesa to Tanzania where it languished as the then chief executive complained that every new M-Pesa customer cost him money! It was not until he finally cracked under the pressure (and my cricket bat style of persuasion) and started to believe in M-Pesa that it began to grow.

The same story was repeated in all the countries where we have taken M-Pesa – they all complain “its too expensive, it takes too long to break even, it takes too many resources, its too hard etc etc”. It is only after huge pressure from me and my team, that they make the effort. They only convert when they realise the difference it can make to their customers’ lives and to their bottom line.

What many companies forget, and continue to ignore, is that to be successful with mobile money, you need to invest significantly in the platform and the distribution network. You need to be passionate about the product and believe in it with your heart (not your head) and you need to be driven to succeed. I am proud of what we have achieved together and even more proud of what has grown from the early beginnings – savings and loans, payment of school fees, merchant payments, charitable donations and many more. The establishment of the M-Pesa Academy is one of my personal highlights and, of course, how we have changed people’s lives for the better!

FINANCIAL INCLUSION

I am proud that people come from all over the world to see how M-Pesa works and how it has really provided financial inclusion for people at the base of the economic pyramid. I am even proud of the numbers of companies that have tried to emulate the success of M-Pesa around the world – some successfully and some not so successfully.

I am proud that Heads of State who have visited Kenya go back home and talk about the M-Pesa success story. And most of all I am proud of the innovative spirit of the people at Safaricom that began this journey 10 years ago with me and, to this day, continue to be innovative and take M-Pesa to new heights.

Michael Joseph is director of mobile money, Vodafone and founding chief executive officer, Safaricom.