‘Buy goods and services’ isn't just an M-Pesa icon, it's more

A customer uses their phone to scan and pay a bill on a card machine.[Getty Images]

How did M-Pesa contribute to flattening the Covid-19 curve in Kenya? This question could make a great study.

How many lives were saved by shifting to cashless transactions? 

Covid-19 made many reluctant Kenyans get cosy with M-Pesa and other platforms such as digital lenders. How many families were saved from sleeping hungry or were able to take someone to hospital because of the digital lenders? Repayment is the least worry under such circumstances. 

The bad side of our behaviour also came out during the pandemic. We started reversing the transaction after paying through M-Pesa. 

Have you noted many Kenyans prefer to withdraw cash from an agent instead of sending money directly to a phone number? 

I have been informed that sent money can be reversed easily but not when withdrawn from an agent. We become innovative when faced with adversity. Kenyans have also informed me that buying some airtime or forwarding that money to another number stops its reversal. Faced with the ravages of Covid-19 such “innovative” behaviours were expected. Can Safaricom share with us some data on these reversals? 

Something else less noticeable changed during the pandemic – the M-Pesa icon changed from ‘buy goods’ to ‘buy goods and services.’  Check your M-Pesa menu. This is not just an addition of two words but shows that Safaricom has caught up with one reality of the economy – it’s now dominated by services. 

Think of what you do every day, from your haircut, going to work, laundry or making a phone call. Life is about services. 

Data show that services contribute about 43 per cent to our Gross Domestic Product. Some see that as a sign of development. They suggest we should skip smokestacks and get directly into the post-Industrial Age espoused by services.  

It’s easy to ignore manufacturing and say “you can buy all that you want.” After all, what is not available in supermarkets or online? But if you think of national pride, jobs created and multiplier effect, some industrialisation is necessary. The disruption of supply chain during Covid-19 pandemic left no doubt that we need some industrialisation. 

Climate change could be the best excuse not to industrialise. But we can use more renewable energy, plenty in Kenya from geothermal to hydro and solar. 

There is some national pride in making something, from toothpicks to cars or machines that make other machines. Safaricom’s new icon is welcome but policymakers should not ignore the product part.

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