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David Fazio

  Harmony at Work


Harmony at Work: Entrepreneurs of all Abilities + Inclusive Commerce = Economic Boom!

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An under-performing economy can go from bust to boom when inclusive commerce and pro-inclusive government policies work together. David Fazio takes up the case of M-Pesa, Kenya's mobile payment model, to illustrate.

How can a technologically innovative nation such as the United States learn from a once economically under-whelming country such as Kenya to achieve inclusion in commerce, business and entrepreneurship? Kenya continues to bring small business enterprises to fruition through the concept of harmony at work. One such model is the mobile payments app M-Pesa that has been nothing short of revolutionary for the country. This instrument has single-handedly managed to infuse Kenya’s silent economy with the resources necessary to generate a resounding economic boom.

What is M-Pesa?
M-Pesa (M stands for mobile and Pesa is Swahili for money) is an innovative mobile payment solution that enables customers to complete simple financial transactions, including person-to-person money transfer. The application’s target market is mobile phone users who don’t have a bank account, either by choice, because they do not have access to a bank or because they don’t have sufficient income to justify one.

M-Pesa holds its users’ money in a bank account run by the company. Users of the app are charged a nominal fee for every transaction (i.e. withdrawal, transfer, etc). The app allows users to make simple, secure transactions in seconds through SMS technology. This benefits customers in terms of convenience, security and ease of use. M-Pesa also creates livable solutions for persons living with disabilities to meaningfully participate in not only commerce but entrepreneurship as well, in addition to allowing otherwise excluded rural consumers to participate in the local economy.

Image: M-Pesa is a mobile-phone based money transfer and microfinancing service

Image: M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) is a mobile-phone based money transfer and microfinancing service for Safaricom and vodacom, the largest mobile network operator in Kenya and Tanzania

A 25-year-old Kenyan, blind, decided to brave this volatile environment and open up an independent M-Pesa service shop. He quickly mastered the phone keys and was up and running, with only his sense of touch to rely on when checking the value of currency. He would ask customers the amount they had withdrawn or deposited as he was unable to verify the SMS confirmation. He learned to make two forms of reasonable accommodation for himself: The young business owner incorporated computer applications he could connect to a cell phone to help him hear and verify the transactions; Nokia software called Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) reads the key pads that have been pressed and prompts a feedback from the phone to the computer. The application picks the message from the mobile phone and speaks out the transaction content and any feedback messages. Secondly, the Kenyan entrepreneur ensured he used only new currency bills. He would exchange old bills for crisp new ones because they have a more distinct texture that makes it easier for him to verify the various denominations.

Financial Inclusion
Banking and engaging in physical financial transactions can be quite difficult for those with a number of different forms of disabilities. These difficulties can exclude us from certain employment fields and can impact our ability to engage in financial transactions. My traumatic brain injury (TBI) severely debilitated the motor functioning in my left hand and also destroyed my ability to interpret sensation. As a result, counting paper currency is always difficult for me. I am lucky to have recovered enough to still be able to manage, even though I am never sure if I am thumbing through just one bill at a time. I was actually fired from a bank while in college because I couldn’t count currency fast enough. You can imagine how difficult engaging in commerce can be for those with TBIs, strokes, neurological disabilities, and other physical impairments whose motor functioning is more limited than mine. Not to mention, the visually impaired.

These individuals have “access” to commerce, money or the market; however, they aren’t included in it because commerce has not been designed to meet their needs. It can be embarrassing for us in this situation to be holding up the register line. Other customers tend to get irate and resent us, while blaming the retailer at the same time for not providing better customer service. This environment pits “us” against “them” - the disabled consumer vs. the able consumer. It creates a negative atmosphere in the store, which repels returning customers and possibly new ones. It is discord, not harmony.

Image: M-Pesa also creates livable solutions for persons living with disabilities to meaningfully participate in not only commerce but entrepreneurship as well

Image: Currently the most developed mobile payment system in the developing world, M-Pesa allows users with a national ID card or passport to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money easily with a mobile device

Benefits of M-Pesa
In Kenya, with the advent of M-Pesa, approximately $26 million is transacted daily across all networks; in 2011 and 2012, mobile money deposits in Kenya was approximately $7.8 billion. Mobile money transfers in Kenya have created a surplus of close to 49,079 jobs during this quarter alone, generating major tax revenues. This inclusive instrument has transformed Nairobi into a “Silicon Savannah”. The Kenyan capital’s start-up scene is booming, with exports of technology-related services exploding from $16 million a decade ago to $360 million in 2010. In the last two years, Kenya’s silent tech boom has seen hundreds of new start-ups in Nairobi, once known as a “technological backwater” less than a decade ago.

The launch of M-Pesa in 2007 ignited this technological revolution. Now, start-ups are using M-Pesa as an integral base component for their business. It puts them in the thick of commerce that includes the widest market outreach imaginable. An M-Pesa-based business includes consumers from the most rural areas, consumers with the most debilitating of conditions, and allows all of them to meaningfully participate in commerce so that no one is unintentionally stigmatized as “different”. M-Pesa allows entrepreneurs of all abilities to succeed. It is harmony at work, where everyone’s needs are met in the same way.

Government’s Role in Creating Inclusion
Kenya’s government and its regulators have enabled this inclusive start-up environment by recalibrating policy and infrastructure. The progressive role of the Central Bank was to commit to regulation following innovation, at the same time, reassuring the market of its guidance. The regulators loosened requirements to enter the business, but still supervised it.

Less than a decade ago, access to the internet was available only through satellite connections and it was grossly expensive. The government changed all that in 2009 by installing undersea cables along the coast. This drove down prices and saw a customer base that swelled from 12 million to 40 million. Internet access, especially mobile internet access, is critical to infrastructure that’s inclusive of people with disabilities. Smartphones, and the mobile net, afford us the ability to meaningfully participate in almost all aspects of society, especially commerce. Other African governments are following Kenya’s lead in a bid to replace cash transactions by mobile ones facilitated by an M-Pesa-like service. This means employing harmony at work to create a more inclusive country altogether.  

Equation for Inclusive Commerce: Include business owners from all backgrounds,
perspectives, cultures and abilities; Reach consumers from all backgrounds,
cultures, perspectives and abilities.

What the United States can learn from the M-Pesa Example?
The U.S. created the internet. The U.S. has led several technological revolutions. The U.S. coined the term “Silicon Valley”. The U.S. pioneered landmark legislation to throw open the doors to public life, in all its complexity, for people with disabilities. However, this is all nothing more than historical epithet now. Today, we know that when we bring together Entrepreneurs of all Abilities and add (+) Inclusive Commerce, we create (=) Economic Boom! The infrastructure already exists and so do the policies (Workforce Investment Act of 1998 for example). It is time for us to recalibrate.


Related Resource

Related Blog: Nanotechnology Bridges Big Gap to Live, Work and Play for Individuals of all Abilities - Part I and Part II by David Fazio.

Related Publication: Between Markets and Mandates -- Approaches to Promoting Broadband Access for Persons with Disabilities | Researched by Pennsylvania State University, Published by Time Warner Cable | Download report.

Related Event: HANDImatica 2012 -- 9th National Conference on Disability and Information & Communications Technology at Bologna, Italy from November 22-24 | Event agenda.