Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2018

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Mass Communications

First Advisor

Tully, Melissa

First Committee Member

Sosale, Sujatha

Second Committee Member

Berkowitz, Daniel

Third Committee Member

Havens, Timothy

Fourth Committee Member

Lewin, Ellen


In urban and rural Kenya, mobile money, the use of the mobile telephone for banking has become a part of everyday life. People use mobile money to accomplish a variety of functions such as transfer money, save, and pay bills, among other uses. At the national level, the government considers mobile money important for individual and national development. Safaricom’s M-Pesa, the most popular mobile money application has received praise for enabling people in the rural areas to access financial services. This research examines the role of mobile money in the everyday lives of people in rural Kenya, especially ordinary users of M-Pesa and M-Pesa agents that facilitate these services.

The findings from this research are based on a three-month period of fieldwork on M-Pesa use and facilitation in Chepkoilel, a rural community in western Kenya. Three questions guided this research: how has M-Pesa fit into people’s existing financial cultures and practices? How do people perceive M-Pesa and the role of the service in facilitating their development or financial mobility? How do M-Pesa agents perceive their role in the mobile money ecosystem? Data were collected using interviewing and observation methods.

In this research, I found that M-Pesa users and M-Pesa agents utilized M-Pesa for their individual development. Notably, the M-Pesa agency business model had provided new opportunities for entrepreneurship to rural dwellers. Equally important, the application was fundamental for facilitating local-local and global-local financial flows. The ease of making financial remittances through M-Pesa had saved people the cost of transport to the banking halls in town, and made it easy for participants to forward their chama, or self-help group contributions. However, despite the speed and convenience of transactions brought by M-Pesa, there were widespread perceptions that financial management had been made difficult by the fact that money was now so fluid on M-Pesa, a contrast to the time when people used cash. At the same time, Safaricom’s introduction of M-Shwari, the digital saving platform had provided people with an alternative avenue with which to save and borrow money. Though M-Shwari fostered the privacy of financial transactions, among other perceived advantages, the application was displacing long-held collectivist financial habits by introducing individualistic financial practices.

This study has also examined the intermediary work of M-Pesa agents in the mobile money ecosystem. As nodes linking Safaricom and its customers, M-Pesa agents were important actors in the system of exchange and value. Their domestication practices were critical to the integration of M-Pesa within the population. Furthermore, as informediaries, they provided socio-technical information that Safaricom used to improve the service. However, their work was often impeded by increasing cases of digital insecurity, and agents found themselves thrust in the role of the management of safety of M-Pesa transactions despite their limited financial knowledge. Finally, in unexpected ways, M-Pesa agents were engaged in the shaping of M-Pesa to suit the local social, cultural and economic remittance practices of the community they served. In the end, these actions benefited their development, the development of their clients, and Safaricom’s business. However, contrary to the prevailing perception, the study found that M-Pesa’s contribution towards financial inclusion was felt more in the informal economy rather than in the formal economy.

I conclude that though M-Pesa was important for people’s development, the low-income population faced digital divide challenges in their attempts to utilize M-Pesa for their development. For instance, the relative high cost of services led to non-adoption of M-Pesa by some demographics. Non-literacy and lack of digital skills were other problems users faced.


Development, Kenya, Mobile Money, Mobile Telephones, M-Pesa, Safaricom


xi, 181 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 158-174).


Copyright © 2018 David Kiplagat Tuwei