Thursday, November 30, 2023


My cashless week in Kenya

My cashless week in Kenya
February 21
05:57 2023

As soon as I stepped out of Jomo Kenyatta Airport (JKA) to the impressively well-lit parking areas, I regretted my decision to defer the change of foreign money to Kenyan shillings at the exchange kiosks within the airport offices.

I had glanced at the exchange rates illuminated on the screens of the Bureau de Change desks and decided that I would get better rates at my usual exchange places around Kimathi street in the centre of Nairobi. It was November 2018. JKA staff were their usual welcoming selves.

“How long will you be here?” the immigration official asked me.

“Wiki moja, rafiki yangu,” I responded. (One week, my friend)


His face lit up, “You speak Kiswahili?”

Not the one to avoid the opportunity to show off at that point, I responded laughingly, “Ninajaribu kidogo.” (I try a little)

The happy engagement went on for another two minutes after he had finished and handed my passport to me. I collected my bags and exited the airport feeling already very much at home in a country where I had lived in the 90s, and where I always felt like I had not even left each time I returned.


The hailing taxi service arrived within three minutes and I was on board. Another conversation started with Margaret who said that I was the second client that she would take to the same hotel the same day. My top concern as we drove through the well-lit streets and free-flowing traffic of late in Nairobi was how to get cash for payment of the courteous and friendly driver.

The sooner I verbalized my problem to her the better. I explained to her that on arrival at the hotel, she would have to wait whilst I change money at the front desk. Or would she accept the US dollar equivalent of the charges and tip added. “You seem to be a local, aren’t you?” She asked and before I could respond, she added in surprise, “Don’t you have M-Pesa?”

I registered for M-Pesa (Swahili word that means Mobile Money) during my last visit to Nairobi and put some money into the mobile money account. But I have never used the service. Margaret said that it was very easy. As directed, I dialed a combination of numbers with the stated amount and she showed me her phone to confirm that she received the money within seconds.

Feeling empowered the next day I put in more money into my mobile money service at a nearby kiosk on the street where one would buy recharge cards. As long as I had my telephone, I did not need cash, nor my wallet, or any bank card or banking service.


A phone number, sim card, and any kind of phone are adequate and one can receive money and pay for anything. I gave tips, paid hawkers on the street, bought a bottle of water, and put away some savings using the service. There is no need for a bank account. No ATM or banking card is involved to use M-Pesa.

As more people arrived in Nairobi for our programme activities at the time, we told them about M-Pesa, They subscribed to the service. From their bank account, my friends and others would transfer money online into their M-Pesa. Those who chose to use an ATM would transfer money from the machine into their M-Pesa. Those who had cash paid it into M-Pesa and avoided the security risks of carrying cash around.

There was no POS needed at the petrol station. The driver of our taxi service paid his bill using M-Pesa. At the restaurants, their M-Pesa number was on the screens to make payments. At the church service, the M-Pesa phone number was written on three projectors.

In 1997 when M-Pesa started its operations through Safaricom and Vodaphone in Kenya, many people did not understand what it meant to life, business, and social interactions. It was a new service that seemed to offer many advantages. No disruptions took place and nobody was forced to change their lifestyle.


The subscription on M-Pesa in Kenya has climbed to about 30 million persons from about one million subscribers in 2008. Although dominant, M-Pesa service is not the only mobile money company in the country which has a population of about 50 million.

“Give me your telephone number,” is the most important statement for money to change hands. Deposits were made, goods were bought, debts were paid, and loans were given – all by telephone wherever one may be in the village, town, or abroad. No cash is needed, requested, or wanted as mobile money has become more and more popular. A study found that 64 per cent of people using M-Pesa had an income of less than 10 dollars per month. They were mostly regular citizens.


As one moves around Africa, one finds mobile money in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

The banking services have evolved rapidly in Nigeria to make banking transactions fairly easy and reliable. But the currency swap policy failure has shown that the cash economy is more extensive than the Central Bank of Nigeria understands. There is sufficient experience even in Africa for any country including Nigeria to copy or learn from and create a cashless economy. It can be done without having a crisis.


Makinwa is the CEO of AUNIQUEI Communication for Leadership.


Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.

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