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Diaspora clicks in to keep Kenya talking

Snapshot of MamaMike's website which sells mobile airtime for Kenyans.
Snapshot of MamaMike's website which sells mobile airtime for Kenyans (MamaMikes)

The crisis prompted by Kenya’s 27 December elections has left large numbers of people stranded in various parts of the country due to insecurity on the roads and general uncertainty. Many Nairobi residents and migrant workers travelled "up-country" to spend holidays with family or to vote in their rural constituency.

Returning to the capital Nairobi has been impossible for many. They are now stranded without paychecks in places where shops and banks have only been open intermittently and are running low on stocks. Access to cash and mobile phone credit cards has become difficult and prices for basics have risen.

Keeping in touch with family and friends, and exchanging updates on the situation are a priority for many.

Kenyans in the US and Europe are thronging websites that sell Kenyan phone credit to send to family and friends back home. "The volumes are unprecedented" Segeni Ngethe, founder of leading Kenyan e-commerce site MamaMike's told IRIN.

He said, his operation was selling "easily ten times" more orders for mobile phone credit than usual and that mobile phone credit had overtaken his usual top seller, shopping vouchers. Customers abroad were especially buying for those "who are stuck in bad places", and can be "very desperate", he said. Almost all the orders are marked as "emergency" he added.

Ngethe said he was processing orders worth 30,000 Kenya Shillings (US$500) every hour today [5 January] to fulfill a backlog of orders.

Low liquidity in mobile cash transfer services

Kenya's two mobile phone operators, Safaricom and Celtel, both have e-money transfer services but volumes seem not to have taken off during the crisis, according to a source close to the industry. For the very poor, there is no money to transfer, let alone a mobile phone to transfer it with, a vendor in Nairobi said. The industry source said most shops and kiosks that usually turn e-cash sent by text message into hard currency had closed because of the crisis. The source added, however, that the sector could well pick up over the weekend and Monday (7 January) would be “very, very busy.”

Christmas holidays are a busy period for Safaricom's M-Pesa service which was used to transfer some 1.7 billion Kenya shillings (about US$25 million [corrected from original 2.5m]) in December, the source said.

Ruth Wangechi, an M-Pesa agent in Nairobi told IRIN that she was serving about 30 customers a day in the run-up to Christmas, but very few today. "I think guys are broke" she said.

No bank and no phone either

According to a survey conducted by FinAccess in 2006, the formal banking sector is underdeveloped in Kenya with only about 450 bank branches in the country. Only 27 percent of the adult population participate in the formal banking system, 35 percent are members of informal credit associations and 38 percent are excluded from financial services. The latter group indicated that the most important reason for not having a bank account was the lack of regular income or savings.

Some 17 percent of respondents in the survey had sent or received money within Kenya. The most popular means of transferring money within the country is via family members or friends or bus companies. Formal channels were mostly used in international money transfers. In 2006, fewer than 1 in 5 of the people that are unbanked owned a mobile telephone. Since the survey, uptake of banking and mobile usage has increased, however.

Jecinta Kinyanjui, a shopowner in Mathare, a slum area of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, who also sells phone credit scratch cards explained why M-Pesa had not taken root in this part of town.

"There are not many transactions in this area. When people in Mathare send money upcountry they prefer buses. The money is sealed in a newspaper or cloth, then we put a telephone number on the package and an ID number. The package is checked in as a regular customer. Then it goes to the bus company's office upcountry for the recipient to pick up".

"Due to poverty there are not many mobile phones. People use public phones which are much cheaper," she said. "In case of a disaster upcountry, the people in Mathare do not send money to the affected area. They go there themselves to help and bring money with them".

MamaMike's Ngethe said he was praying for peace in Kenya, but that he was doubtful the current "mindframe" in Kenya was in tune with his company's latest tagline: "Share love. Send happiness"


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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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