12 June 2014

'Africa' is a real subject, sub-category: Writing about M-PESA

So here’s a story about M-PESA. Another one. Written by Charles Graeber for Bloomberg Businessweek:

‘I had traveled from New York to Nairobi to learn how to do exactly this—to pay for things with a phone—and to understand why Kenya has gained a reputation as the mobile payments future. (...) though I believe myself well-traveled, I’d never even set foot in Africa. All to the better, my editors said; there were already too many self-styled experts on how East Africa was leapfrogging more mature economies on mobile payments.’

And you know what? There’s actually a reason why it might be a better idea to have such an article written by a so-called ‘self-styled expert’. Or just someone who's familiar with it. Because M-PESA is hardly a new subject, and there are a great number of people who know how the system has developed and works, and who also know the basics about Nairobi:

The airport didn’t burn to the ground, for example, and the city isn't referred to as ‘Nai-rob-me’. This article is sprinkled with mistakes on M-PESA, too: the daily transaction limit and the maximum balance are wrong, for example, and pesa means money, not payment. No mention of the fact that you can now transfer money from your bank account to your mobile account, which saves you running around with cash. This is not available to the author as he’s a tourist, but certainly an important feature in how the service has developed both in competition and co-operation with the banking sector. Or that Safaricom developed mobile money further to offer a payment platform specifically for retailers. The article has the inevitable NGO stories, but no mention of M-PESA’s payroll services (because yes, there are employed people here).

Le Sigh. No doubt well intended, but sloppy. ‘Africa’ is a real subject. So do some real homework.

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