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I was recently invited to speak in a panel http://www.dw.de/mobile-for-development-is-scale-what-matters/a-166... at the Deutche Welle Global Media Forum 2013. This session Mobile for Development—Is scale what matters? was convened by Frontline SMS and brought together speakers from BBC Media Action, the Guardian, and Daraja.
One of the key question that the session focused on was: what do the consequences of the growth and evolution of mobile telephony mean for access to health, government and other services, as well as interaction with the media? What best practice or mistakes in using mobile can we learn from?
I choose to make my remarks based on Kenya’s flagship in mobile telephony namely mobile money platform Mpesa as follows.
Africa is home to mobile money transfer technology with the most popular being Mpesa (pesa means money in Swahili) pioneered in Kenya. Mobile money is also taking root in Nigeria, Ghana, and slowly picking up in other African countries.
Mobile money transfer allows people to use their phones like a bank account where they can deposit, withdraw and transfer funds using their handset. Further people can pay utility bills for example electricity, water, internet, national health insurance and rent. They can also pay for goods in a limited number of super markets and in airline ticketing. The innovation has cut on travel costs since those living in the cities do not need to undertake unnecessary travel to get funds to their relatives in rural areas. You could say it serves as their ‘paper’ money.
With this popularity and with over 15 million users within a span of five years, ethical and societal challenges have emerged not just around mpesa, but also around other technovations for example on intellectual property rights and modes of compensation for the innovators), and copyright. Mpesa has not escaped controversy of ownership of this technology, with several quarters claiming they were behind the innovation. The issue of who the creator is remains unresolved.
However the major challenge is on privacy and data protection. Subscribers have to register personal details with Mpesa agents to be able to use the service. Further if a user withdraws/deposits money; the Mpesa agent records the details in an open book where anyone can see users’ identity numbers, their full name(s), amounts transacted, their phone numbers and signatures.
Abuse of such data has came under scrutiny early 2012, when some people found out that they were registered as members of various political parties without their knowledge. It was a requirement in Kenya that before political parties could be registered they had to submit two thousand registered voters in each of the 47counties. It was suspected that the political parties got peoples details from Mpesa agents.
In addition, If one is in doubt of a particular phone number (in suspicious situations such as spouse infidelity), it is possible to send to the phone number a minimum kes. 50 (less than 1 usd), and the mpesa message sends back the details of the owner of the suspicious phone numbers. This is an infringement of an individual’s privacy. Moreover, the owner of the said number has no right of rejecting the money.
Language has also developed around mobile money with such terms as ‘mpesa me’ (meaning send me money), and nisambazie ‘share.’