Is the success of M-Pesa ‘Empowering’ Kenyan Rural Women?

The popular mobile money transfer service, M-Pesa, appears to improve the everyday lives of  rural women in Kenya. But a review of some of the current research indicates a need for further conceptualisation of what women’s empowerment means.

M-Pesa (“M” for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) in Kenya is one of the most celebrated success stories of information and communication technologies (ICTs) allowing poor communities to access a revolutionary bank service. M-Pesa entails the use of a mobile phone to make immediate money transfers from town to village and vice versa, saving time and money, facilitating rapid solutions to the daily problems affecting vulnerable communities, and opening up new ways to manage the cash flow of people whose lives can be improved with very small amounts. At the national level, this technology revolution touches the lives of nearly 70% of Kenyan adults who transfer money to each other via their mobile phones. Kenya ranks number one worldwide in this domain: more than US$320 million is transferred via Kenyan mobile phones each month, which represents roughly a quarter of the country’s gross national product (GNP). Increasingly cash payments are avoided and posters in shops indicate preference for payments via mobile banking.