No one was ever truly ready for M-Pesa’s incredible success—not even Safaricom, the Kenyan telecom operator that launched the mobile money service in March 2007.
Created as a simple tool for texting small payments between users, the service registered a million customers in its first year, well ahead of the expected 350,000 users. M-Pesa (“Pesa” means “money” in Swahili) proved disruptive because it married the functions of telecommunications services with those offered by banks, credit, and microfinance institutions. It also proved to be an innovative payment service for the unbanked who, living far from formal banking outlets or any financial infrastructure, routinely faced challenges to their physical and financial security.
A decade later, the mobile money system has become the pride and anchor of Kenya’s homegrown tech community. With almost 24 million subscribers, 160,000 agents, and more than 6 billion transactions annually, M-Pesa has become crucial to Kenya’s economy. Besides sending and receiving money, M-Pesa has become the most common way to pay household bills and salaries, distribute pension payments, and disburse small microloans. The service has also been lauded for reducing poverty, encouraging a savings culture, and helping families weather financial storms.