The Curious Case of M-Pesa’s Miraculous Poverty Reduction Powers

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M-PESA kiosk outside Kibera centre in Nairobi. Picture credit: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit

By Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere

Over the past decade the expansion of digital-financial inclusion through innovations in financial technology (fin-tech) has been identified by the World Bank, the G20, USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other major international institutions, as a key way to promote development and alleviate poverty in the Global South (GPFI, 2016; Häring 2017; World Bank, 2014). Perhaps the most influential and widely reported publication pushing forward this narrative is an article examining M-Pesa written by US-based economists Tavneet Suri and William Jackand published in the prestigious journal Scienceentitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’. M-Pesa is a mobile phone, agent-assisted platform for transferring money from one person to another. It was originally developed with funding from DFID and has quickly become a darling of the digital-financial inclusion movement. In this particular article, the authors make the far-reaching claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty’ (Suri and Jack, 2016: 1288).

Suri and Jack’s article in Science has sent ripples through the global development community and has servedas perhaps was intendedto solidify support for upping the promotion of digital-financial inclusion initiatives across the Global South. Importantly, the article’s claims of unprecedented poverty reduction have been uncritically picked up by all of the international development agencies and microcredit advocacy organisations, as well as by many mainstream economists, so-called ‘social entrepreneurs’, tech investors, and media outlets. Much like microcredit in the 1980s, fin-tech and digital-financial inclusion is now very widely seen as a key—if not the keyto reducing global poverty and promoting local development.

In this post we summarise our recent article entitled ‘Is Fin-tech the New Panacea for Poverty Alleviation and Local Development?’ (Bateman, Duvendack, and Loubere, 2019), which challenges Suri and Jack’s findings, and urges the global development community to take a second, more critical look at their study. We argue that the article contains a worrying number of omissions, errors, inconsistencies, and that it also employs flawed methodologies. Unfortunately, their inevitably flawed conclusions have served to legitimise and strengthen a false narrative of the role that fin-tech can play in poverty alleviation and development, with potentially devastating consequences for the global poor.Read More »

Harvesting data: Who benefits from platformization of agricultural finance in Kenya?

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By Gianluca Iazzolino and Laura Mann.

Getting access to credit is a critical challenge for small-holder farmers all over Sub-Saharan Africa . A new breed of financial-technology firms (fintech) promises to address this issue, claiming that digital technologies can lower the barriers for borrowers and cut transaction costs for lenders. As part of our ongoing project on digitisation and data in US and Kenyan agriculture, we have been examining these claims, studying how tech companies translate them into business initiatives and exploring the implications for knowledge production, economic growth and value redistribution.

In rural Kenya, fintech innovations are premised on greater efficiency and transparency and inspired by narratives of digital disintermediation. Similarly to what argued for migrant remittances by Vincent Guermond in a previous post of this blog series , digital lenders harness data (extracted through digital infrastructures) and algorithms to make farmers more legible and, therefore, more predictable. In order to expand their pool of data, Kenyan fintechs are increasingly embedding themselves into inter-connected digital infrastructures, or platforms. These platforms provide farmers with end-to-end solutions, and thereby bundle together financial services with the provision of agricultural inputs and information extension services. In so doing, lenders recalibrate and harmonize their risk-assessment procedures, and construct an ideal type of farmer whose financial behaviours and importance in the local value chain can be clearly pinned down.Read More »