mBanking 2009 is over – 8 months of organizing and 2 full days of panels. The feedback was positive from all of the policymakers, NGO staff, bankers, and telecoms that came, and I personally believe it was a success because there was at least one heated debate between a bank and an MNO, the type of heated debate that needs to occur in order to put the real issues on the table and up for discussion
The day after the conference we headed to see the reality of mobile banking, in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. You would probably recognize the place, as it was featured in The Constant Gardener – it was a little eerie to have a sense of familiarity in such a place. We had a tour guide, who took us around to meet people that were participating in savings groups. These groups not only managed to save despite being the “poorest of the poor,” they are now starting to use mobile payment services (M-Pesa) to save time and money by transferring their savings contribution instead of having to travel long distances to meet. The conditions were nightmarish: crowded and claustrophobic, with small one room houses for families of five or six. When we entered a house, I tried to move to the corner so that all of group could fit, and stepped in one of the small tubs of water that they had for washing. The house was dark and the air was so thick that each member of our group had to go outside for air at some point in the conversation. However, the people did not seem destitute. The slum was lively, and everyone seemed to be doing something – going to work and school, cooking or selling t-shirts. The children were happy and energetic, except for the one child in tears because she was afraid of the mzungus (African term for “white people”) – her mother just laughed at her and made the poor child follow us around. Oh, and yes, this is Obama country: we saw t-shirts with Obama and Michelle, an Obama barber shop…
The problem in Kibara is land – you just cringe at the thought of disease or fire in such a place, where people are living on top of each other and there is no escape. Our tour guide told us that when he was growing up there it wasn’t so bad, but with urbanization, the slum has grown larger and larger as conditions worsen. There is no waste management (trash everywhere) and no police surveillance at all (they have tried to set up community watch forces, but these often turn into gangs, with protection only through an “us versus them” mentality.)
Here, M-Pesa, combined with traditional financial services such as savings groups, is really changing lives. We spoke at length to Charles, a 60-something year old man who owned his own furniture shop. He had started with no capital – customers paid money up front so that he could buy the materials to start their bed or set of chairs. The furniture was beautiful, and would easily go for thousands of dollars in the US or Europe. Charles has big dreams: he hopes one day to move his factory out of the slum and to employ hundreds of workers. The savings group helps, allowing him to invest money which he can use to expand his business, and putting him in contact with other entrepreneurs.
When asked how the savings group has changed his life, he said first and foremost it was the increase in knowledge and the chance to learn, facilitated by NGOs that fund trips to other savings groups across the country. Walking through the sludge and trash that filled the slum, I had honestly started to feel ill and even panicky. But listening to Charles and seeing his smile that could absolutely light up the room, I forgot I was in one of the worst places on earth – the smell of cedar wood chips helped, too. He was simply a warm, kind, and motivated person, eager to share his story with the 8 crazy Americans that had walked into his home.