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Going cashless has its benefits, as a trip to London showed

Wednesday July 26 2017

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A few days ago, Visa launched m-Visa to enable more people to use cards for safer, faster payments. 

MasterCard also has MasterPass and both these card companies are rolling out these new payment systems that use QR codes or bar codes to capture payment transactions across Africa.

Meanwhile, Safaricom is piloting “1-tap” to enable customers to make M-Pesa purchases faster, just by tapping their phones against a shop device.

All these systems hope to reduce the need for customers to use cash. But a recent trip to England showed that while Kenya is considered the king of person-to-person remittances, other countries are doing very well in the race to cashless payment systems.

From ordering fast food, paying for drinks, or paying to use trains and buses, the use of cash is clearly slower and less preferred.

At several supermarkets in the UK, there are now more self-service checkout registers where shoppers themselves scan the products they are buying, and then tap their phones or cards to pay for the items.

Meanwhile, the queues to pay by cash to human cashiers are fewer and much slower. They are usually used by older, less tech savvy people, tourists or foreigners (like me) who are confused by the many odd-sized coins in Britain.

It was the same story at the underground and cross-country train stations where there were more machines set out for non-cash than cash payment.

If you were paying by card, you could walk up and be done in less than a minute but if you were paying by cash, it took between 5 and 10 minutes to queue and transact at busy stations.

Going cashless means a temporary separation of the haves and the have-nots. Both groups all end up using the same train coaches, but those with tap credit cards and iPhones, or who use Samsung pay and Android pay get to take the earlier trains because their payments are processed faster than those who pay using cash.


What else happens in life because of faster processing and payments?  Such people spend less time queuing and waiting at restaurants and social events and perhaps enjoy their experiences more as a result.

For businesses and shop owners in Kenya, adopting cashless systems has been pitched as having lower fees, less fraud from staff handling daily cash, better transparency, records are digital, taxes can be collected, etc.

When they go fully cashless, there will be no more issues of supermarkets issuing sweets and matchboxes as change. But one problem with this is that, in Kenya, the change people get after paying at a restaurants using cash, is often used to tip the waitresses or to tip taxi drivers and to donate to the less fortunate in the street. When you pay by card, you can’t tip anyone.

Even in London, inside train stations and up on the street, there are performing musicians, the disabled, veterans and beggars who beg for donations. That is where coins are still useful. But not so in Sweden, according to a recent piece in Bloomberg. Sweden is the most cashless society on earth, with an estimated 80 per cent of transactions done in plastic, where the number of notes and coins circulating has been dropping.

Some banks don’t even handle cash anymore, and churches and some homeless people, even accept donations by card.  

Besides needing a credit card, much of cashless future requires one to be continuously connected to the internet. This implies one should be well off to get around without needing cash.


The Communications Authority of Kenya posted a circular to mailbox owners that cited advantages and disadvantages of e-learning and a lot of them can apply to cashless payments.

The advantages are convenience, doing things on your own time, having more cost options, and higher customer retention. Disadvantages include technophobia and the long learning curve to adapt to digital systems, and reduced social and cultural interaction.

And despite using Google, having special apps on my phone and maps that continuously updated my location and answered my queries, I still got lost and confused in London. I then had to ask for help from strangers and shop staff, and I got to learn some new things from such social interaction.

The train station attendant who helped me use the self-service ticket booth convinced and showed me that buying a round trip ticket would save 30 per cent. I did that, but I did not tip him!  

Also, read about my other findings from a week of trying not to use cash in Nairobi.

Twitter: @bankelele