10 December 2018

Kenya: M-Pesa Is a Critical Resource, It Should Never Fail

opinion

I have written extensively about the implications of the dominance of Safaricom over the Kenyan economy and its implication as a potential single point of failure.

To be fair, the M-Pesa service has only failed twice or thrice in its ten-year lifespan and that should be commendable as a very good performance level of availability.

However, within those ten years, M-Pesa has grown from an option to literally being a must-have financial service for millions of Kenyans. It has also become integrated in the lifestyles of Kenyans in terms of paying for anything, ranging from groceries to school fees and even bribes.

Whereas it is not the only mobile money service in the country and in theory Kenyans do have options, the reality, however, is that it is the only such service with the prerequisite agent network that has a geographic reach and depth to serve its close to 25 million mobile money subscribers.

Twenty five million subscribers is more than the adult population in the country. It is more than the whole of the voting population, and is way more than the employed population of this country.

And so very much like the matatu industry, if M-Pesa sneezes, the rest of the country catches a cold.

HUGE IMPLICATION

According to the Communication Authority quarterly reports, M-Pesa subscribers exchange between themselves more than Sh200 billion monthly. Put differently, if the platform were to go down for a single day, close to Sh7 billion-worth of funds that would have otherwise moved between Kenyans, would not have moved. This is a huge figure that demonstrates the grinding effect such a failure would have on the velocity of the economy. In short, M-Pesa is a critical national infrastructure - irrespective of the fact that its UK partner, Vodafone, controls the majority share.

Given this critical position, the service holds over the Kenyan socio-economic discourse, the government has the fiduciary responsibility to ensure that it never fails. Indeed, this may sound like interfering in the affairs of a private enterprise, but the circumstances are such that the services this private enterprise is offering have assumed a very public role in the lives of Kenyans.

Additionally, whether through sheer hard work on the part of Safaricom or perhaps as a results of regulatory or market failure, Kenyans practically do not have a plan B in the event of M-Pesa failing.

Suggestions about using alternative mobile money service conveniently chose to be blind to the fact that the agent network of the number one mobile money transfer service is three times as big as its nearest competitor. So one may indeed receive the mobile money into their phone but would find it quite difficult to cash it out, given the competitors' relatively poorly developed mobile money agents and merchants network.

NEVER AGAIN

Until and unless this situation changes, M-Pesa should never be allowed to go down.

One way to ensure this does not happen is for the regulator to require additional and external information security checks to provide assurance that the potential risks and threats have been identified and mitigated.

Indeed, this is one of the new information security requirements from Central Bank of Kenya for all payment platforms including M-Pesa.

However, and perhaps more importantly, the regulator should demand that Safaricom facilitates business continuity for its subscribers rather than telling them to be patient until when services are restored.

We may not avoid failure with technical systems. But we surely should not be left without feasible alternatives in this day and age. Informing subscribers that "the database has refused" is incredible, particularly coming from a company that nets a profit of around Sh5 billion per month.

Let us hope that this is the last time we get to hear that M-Pesa is sneezing - at least over the next ten or so years.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu

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