M-Pesa: A Development Intervention with a Marketing Budget

Here’s the kind of image you’ll virtually never see in a fundraising drive: an African business aggressively marketing a wildly successful African innovation to eager African customers. Safaricom’s MPesa is a Development Intervention, but not as you know it.

The story is well known by now. The short version, in case you’ve been hiding behind a rock all these years, is that realizing that few Kenyans had bank accounts but virtually all had mobile phones, Safaricom figured out a way to turn cel phones into a simple, usable mobile payments platform.

By any standards, M-Pesa is a raging development success. Whether it’s payments, remittances, loans or Give Directly, M-Pesa leapfrogs 600 years of banking practice and has become firmly established into the day-to-day lives of most Kenyans.

In part, it works because M-Pesa is aggressively marketed. You can’t walk 10 feet down a kenyan street without seeing that logo. It’s now mainstreamed into the everyday fabric of Kenyan life, with M-Pesa agents blanketing the country like Starbucks does U.S. cities. And yeah, it makes Safaricom a ton of money.

For M-Pesa, profitability is sustainability. M-Pesa’s admirers don’t have to worry that adoption will collapse once “programme support” is withdrawn, because programme support is never going to be withdrawn. Programme makes too damn much money for that.

And as Safaricom knows, an aggressive marketing operation is what makes it all stick, driving the network economies that make the project a success.

There’s one aspect of Social Enterprise you seldom hear about. But maybe you should. I bet if Improved Cookstoves were branded and marketed with the relentlessness with which Safaricom pushes M-Pesa their take-up and utilization stats wouldn’t be so dismal.

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