Fear can make even the boldest men shudder. By last year, even the notoriously ungovernable matatu crew strictly adhered to the Covid-19 guidelines given by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation.
There was fear of arrest or infection with coronavirus. For some time, passengers could pay their bus fares using mobile money such as M-Pesa. It was safe, reducing contact as the exchange of cash was limited.
If you whipped out a crisp new banknote from your back pocket and thrust it in the hand of a conductor, heads turned. You were an unwanted impediment to the movement into cashless payment.
Now, it is vice versa. Boarding a matatu at Beba Beba Trade Centre in Nairobi headed for Kasarani’s Mwiki, a conductor will shout, “Hapa ni cash! No M-Pesa!” He is warning the commuters, who are in the queue desperately hoping to sneak out of town before curfew begins, that their M-Pesa payment will not be accepted.
They have two options. Leave the queue and dash into one of the crowded M-Pesa shops, or hope to get onto a different bus.
And without much choice of transport for them, and with an increasingly loud call by matatu crew to ditch mobile payments, they will have to look for the cash.
It used to be different. Even then, there was a risk. Commuters handed their phones to conductors who entered their mobile numbers ahead of the cashless payment. For many, it did not seem like there was much avoidance of contact.
Judith, who sells vegetables at Hunters, Kasarani says at first, when the pandemic hit the country, customers could easily pay via M-Pesa. But then that changed. You had to factor in the withdrawal charges when paying, she insisted.
“At Marikiti, they do not accept M-Pesa, unless we include the withdrawal fee,” she explains to customers. She prefers that customers do not turn to their phones when making a payment. She feels it is less cumbersome using cash transactions
At the height of the pandemic, there was a waiver of fees in transfers of Sh1,000 and below in person-to-person transactions. Physical handling of cash was thus discouraged, with SMEs tipped to benefit from this move by the government in collaboration with public service providers.
Even transfers from banks to M-Pesa were made free. The over 20.5 million M-Pesa users enjoyed the holiday. Safaricom’s net profit took a hit in a rather unusual year, tanking from Sh35 billion in 2019 to Sh33 billion in 2020. Removal of fees on transactions of Sh1,000 and below was seen as the main driver for this decline in profit.
And although the company later reevaluated and adjusted charges levied on transfers of various amounts, mostly lowering them, the disenchantment with cashless payments has refused to give way.
In 2020, a Standard Chartered bank predicted that Kenya was going to be a digital and cashless economy by 2033. “Almost three-quarters of survey respondents in Kenya agree that Covid-19 has made them more positive about online shopping, but they are also more careful with their spending and want new ways to track their money digitally,” the report said.
But re-openings after lockdowns and reduction of curfew hours last year coupled with the threat of loss of livelihoods brought people back into the streets. And with it, a return to something of life pre-Covid.
Suddenly, the attractiveness of online transactions was under threat.
Since it has been a see-saw - a tightening of rules when the situation gets dire and threatens to spiral out of control and a loosening of the same when Kenya sniffs a possibility of getting out of the woods.
Now, even matatus barely observe social distancing. Commuters walk into bus stations armed with cash in their pockets.
George, a fruit vendor in Kasarani was forced to get a till number after he realised that a lot of his customers were reversing payments.
“People will pay and then immediately reverse the payments, so I keep making losses. We are in desperate times customers will seize that chance to steal.”
That has been the fear. And with the fear of reversal and actual reversal, small businesses have suffered.
After coming so close to digitising payments, it looks we are sinking back to the use of cash.
With loopholes that leave business people exposed, alongside charges that strike fears among SMEs, the dream for a cashless Kenya might take longer to realise. ?