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 M-Pesa’s admirers don’t have to worry that adoption will collapse once “programme support” is withdrawn, because programme support is never going to be withdrawn.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.
“Sustainability” is all well and good, but development practice is chock full of programs that are sustainable…but not sustained.
Even where early results from an intervention are encouraging, budgets eventually come to an end. And in a huge range of policy interventions – from cookstoves to Conservation Agriculture to water projects and many, many more, the refrain is the same: when the budget ends, so does the take-up.
The only tried-and-true to this solution is for programme support never to end. For the intervention’s visibility never to dip. And the only reliable way to bring that about is to make sure it’s not merely rolled out but marketed on a continuous basis as part of a profit-making business plans that don’t depend on a far-away donor to continue.
M-Pesa proves that there’s money to be made this way. But not if you approach the “selling” of the idea as something you can do for a while and then stop.