African countries like Kenya have leapfrogged traditional banking systems by using mobile phones to store and spend money. Do Africans have the better deal?
For several years now, Western technology commentators and analysts have proclaimed the imminent rise of mobile cash – the ability of users to conduct financial transactions using an application on their phone. And for several years now, Western technology users have remained militantly uninterested. Analysts’ excitement for the technology seems to be based on solely on coolness and the search for profit. How cool would it be if we could pay for our meals with our phones? How profitable would it be for the companies who facilitated our payments were we to take care of dinner with our iPhone or Android?
But on a recent trip to Kenya to cover that country’s booming mobile applications industry, I was surprised to see that the futuristic world of mobile money was accepted by most Kenyans as the norm. There are, at last count, 17 mobile cash companies in Kenya alone. And that raised a question: Why would mobile money be more acceptable in Africa, a continent not generally known for technical innovation, than in America, reputedly the most advanced nation on earth?
After talking to a host of American tech professionals at a recent conference, ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski boiled down their assessment of mobile cash to: “This is not something I would use to buy a fridge." In most parts of Africa, by contrast, where mobile cash is extremely popular, it is often the only way, excepting paper money, to buy a fridge.