The Nokia 1100 is arguably the world’s most successful phone. The best-selling consumer electronics device ever, this entry-level phone – with few features except voice and text messaging – sold 250 million units. Although humble by today’s standards, this phone was our reference for a revolutionary new digital service that truly changed the world.
When I first arrived in Kenya in 2005, mobile penetration was around 10% and limited to the well off and middle class. Yet there we were, a fresh-faced and eager team with funding from the UK government and a vision to make a difference. Our aim – to use mobile technology to tackle the high costs associated with micro-finance in Africa, where those on the lowest of incomes are required to pay the highest levels of interest even though they have some of the lowest default rates around.
At the time, I have to admit, I was a little daunted – not just by the scale of the mountain yet to climb but also by the path we were going to have to take. With hindsight, I’m pleased we didn’t know quite how hard it would be.
On the face of it, our proposition was simple. Users would have mobile phones. We would build an application that sat on the SIM card. They would use this app to send and receive money using text messages. Apart from some all-important encryption and database design, what could be simpler?
It wasn’t long before reality struck home. Not only did we have to support nine different types of mobile user – many of whom had never seen a phone before. We also had to deliver a top-to-bottom double-entry financial accounting system, complete with financially regulated business operations, deeply integrated into a mobile network already growing at 50% a year, whilst turning the country’s shopkeepers into a national distribution network. And we were in sub-Saharan Africa.
In our naivety, we said we’d best own the whole solution – after all, we were bright engineers, no problem should be outside our remit. In hindsight this turned out to be one of the most painful, and yet the very best, decisions we could have made. It meant we were first in line for any problem. It also meant we were forced to think about the service we were creating – not just the pilot technology platform we were originally paid to deliver.
We had to get to know our users well, all of them – call centre staff, shopkeepers and customers. On one occasion we got the call: “Please help. They’ve started throwing bricks.” What would you do if you weren’t able to get hold of your money because someone told you “sunspots” were interrupting a vital satellite link to the data centre in the UK? It certainly focused our minds on service improvement.
Even with all the scars, I still marvel that the small pilot I helped start in Nairobi and Thika – which we called M-PESA – has now scaled to a digital service that handles more than 40% of Kenya’s GDP and triggered a global revolution in mobile financial services.
So, going forward, sorting out m-health should be a doddle – shouldn’t it?
Read more from Tim and his colleagues in our Interface magazine.