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The M-Commerce Phenomenon? Old News.

by Maria Onyango September 25, 2012

​This is the year of m-commerce in the UK. It's the word on everyone's lips - every multi-channel director, marketing manager, strategy consultant - it's the cooler younger sister of e-commerce. The IBM 2012 Smarter Consumer Study discovered that 39% of consumers surveyed wanted to receive personalised promotions via their mobiles, and 52% wanted to use their mobiles to pay for items instore.

Convincing shoppers to use an entirely new method of transferring money and buying products is no small feet. It's all going so well! Ah, but wait. I recently visited rural Kenya, and they are light years ahead.

Mobile phones influence buying decisions of Kenyan consumers more than any other media, including TV, newspapers and radio. And, the Central Bank of Kenya reported that the number of mobile money users in Kenya increased to 19.2 million in 2011. 15.21 million of them were customers of a company you probably haven't heard of: M-PESA.

Anywhere, everywhere, in the smallest village, in the tiniest local shop, you will find the ubiquitous M-PESA sign (M-PESA are owned by the even more gargantuan Safaricom, Kenya's answer to God). When you're in a place with no electricity or running water, the presence of m-commerce is incongruous. After all, Kenya is a relatively small and not particularly, erm, rich country with a dubious economic environment and little by way of infrastructure. It should not be a 'power user' of m-commerce.

But those factors are exactly why m-commerce has taken off. The payments infrastructure is woefully lacking, and secure, convenient ways of paying aren't as accessible as they are in the UK, or the rest of the developed world. Yet you can buy (and I did) a mobile phone for as little as Ksh900 (that's about £6.60), and M-PESA has built a trusted brand that directly keys into Kenyan consumers' existing technology.

As a result, the MasterCard 'Mobile Readiness Index’ ranks Kenya as one of the most m-commerce ready countries in the world, fourth, alongside developed and integrated markets like the United States, despite ranking 83rd as an economy (CIA Factbook). In terms of sheer m-commerce usage and awareness, it is one of the most advanced markets in the world. Of all the 34 countries surveyed, Kenya shows the highest familiarity with mobile payments at the point of sale and the highest familiarity with m-commerce.

So, while I'm excited about m-commerce, I don't really need it. I have my debit card. And so do you, and you. M-commerce is a nice little add on to an already effective, mature and convenient payment system in the UK. For someone in rural Kenya however, it's a lifeline, and a way of life. And it's great to see how some of the incremental developments in retail in the UK have been adopted and used to their maximum effect in Kenya, and makes me hopeful that this blueprint can be used in the rest of the emerging world.

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