The Cashless System: The Challenge in Dealing with Peculiar Kenyans

That is what Michael Joseph said once. Of course many did not understand his context not even his bigger competitor at the time, Kencell. His capitalisation on this peculiar group of people has built one of the most successful companies in East and Central Africa, Safaricom. In countries where per minute billing succeeded, per second billing thrived here; in countries where credit and debit cards have succeeded, mobile money has taken root here instead.

We can all tell the government had ulterior motives with the cashless system, but that is not of interest here. Of interest is the way the government set itself up for failure in the first place.

The first problem indeed is the peculiar people of this country. We cannot grapple with being cashless. For fifty plus years and indeed since colonial times, Kenyans understood one language since introduction of the shilling i.e. hard cash. How then do you convince a person who since birth knows only hard currency? Caressing the crisp notes (bills – if you’re from Compton, America) is a true joy for some people. Until James Mwangi came around and told the common mwananchi that Equity is our listening and caring partner, majority of us Kenyans operated strictly with cash.

Step in the Minister for Transportation who tells us that we need to ditch (get rid off – if you’re from London, Britain) the cash by date x. Just like any other brand that has built brand values for years, Kenya is a brand that values hard cash. Values grow strongly to become part of our culture. Changing culture is one of the biggest organisational challenges you can face, and mostly results in firing employees – you can’t fire Kenyans from Kenya. Changing a culture takes time, and especially a culture of peculiar people.

The other fact was the fact that the minister told us that it would be illegal to use cash in public transport systems by date x. Not only did this create resistance but it was illegal. Resistance because you’re forcing the people out of the only thing they know – cash. Illegal because he declared legal tender illegal.

The greatest failure was the lack of a platform. A cashless system should be seamless. Indeed the various routes within the city adopted different cashless systems starting with BebaPay, Jinice 1963, Abiria, Pepea et al. So, was the commuter who wanted to visit different places within the city supposed to adopt the different cards? Further, there was no platform to allow for use of one card across multiple systems. Some were EMV compliant (an over secure card for just paying fare), some were NFC compliant. Such an inconvenience to the consumer was always going to fail to begin with.

Then there’s the added expense of operating the card i.e. as one advert humorously points out, the bill of your bill.

Way forward? Let Kenyans continue using their money until someone finds a peculiar breakthrough :).


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