Is the success of M-Pesa ‘empowering’ Kenyan rural women?

The popular mobile money transfer service, M-Pesa, appears to improve the everyday lives of  rural women in Kenya. But a review of some of the current research indicates a need for further conceptualisation of what women’s empowerment means.

Oumy Khairy Ndiaye
31 March 2014

M-Pesa (“M” for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) in Kenya is one of the most celebrated success stories of information and communication technologies (ICTs) allowing poor communities to access a revolutionary bank service. M-Pesa entails the use of a mobile phone to make immediate money transfers from town to village and vice versa, saving time and money, facilitating rapid solutions to the daily problems affecting vulnerable communities, and opening up new ways to manage the cash flow of people whose lives can be improved with very small amounts. At the national level, this technology revolution touches the lives of nearly 70% of Kenyan adults who transfer money to each other via their mobile phones. Kenya ranks number one worldwide in this domain: more than US$320 million is transferred via Kenyan mobile phones each month, which represents roughly a quarter of the country’s gross national product (GNP). Increasingly cash payments are avoided and posters in shops indicate preference for payments via mobile banking.

Numerous videos posted on YouTube show rural women happily using M-Pesa, an illustration of how the service crosses all categories of the population and particularly includes women who are often left out of positive technological improvements in Africa. The phenomenon has caught the attention of researchers with an interest in the position of women in the rural economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Danielle White’s (2012) paper, “The Social and Economic Impact of M-Pesa on the Lives of Women in the Fishing Industry on Lake Victoria,” presents an interesting case.

White’s study concerns communities in Migori County, located on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria, a population of over one million that relies mostly on fishing for its source of income. In these communities, the social roles in the artisanal fishing value chain are as follows: fishing is considered a job solely for men. Women may own their own boats but never partake in fishing. Mostly women are engaged in the processing and trading of fish but men are also allowed to partake in this business.

For White, the adoption of M-Pesa has brought significant positive changes for the women in these communities.

Firstly, many women now have the ability to save their money in a safe place and build up resources for costly activities and purchases such as helping their families and, most importantly, sending their children to school. Women stated that they were much less likely to spend their money when they saved it in M-Pesa rather than in their homes. Also, in the past, men often used their wives’ money to buy alcohol or other personal items, leaving the women with insufficient funds to process fish. With the women’s money saved in M-Pesa, their husbands no longer have easy access to it.

The women’s transportation expenses have drastically gone down too. This includes the direct costs of transport and the money the women save since they would otherwise have to stop working for a period of time to physically transport their money themselves. Women use their extra money and time to expand their businesses and profits, most often by processing more fish to sell or, for the most audacious, constructing their own fishing boats.

White emphasises the case of a college-educated women, very involved in her community. Using M-Pesa allowed this woman to have more free time to attend different meetings and trainings, from which she gained knowledge on issues like maternal health and business strategies to share with her community. 81% of White’s interviewees said that the use of M-Pesa makes women more independent; they no longer have to rely on others for money.

M-Pesa has also changed relations between men and women by enabling more trust between fishermen and fish processors. As women are saving using M-Pesa, they are able to pay for the quantity of fish that they buy rather than asking for credit. Other gains of confidence among the women of this fishing community are illustrated by the fact that, having discovered the multiple benefits of M-Pesa, many are now considering accessing more financial services including bank accounts. They now see the benefit of combining a bank account for savings with M-Pesa for managing small amounts and transactions. (Many formal banks offer this option in the very responsive Kenyan banking system). In short, the positive impact of M-Pesa on the women of this Luo fishing community cannot be refuted.

In another study, Olga Morawczynski and Mark Pickens (2009) see women in the position of “rural recipients” in their use of M-Pesa, as opposed to the “urban senders” of money who are men. Morawczynski and Pickens’ study focuses on Kibera, an informal settlement near Nairobi of more than one million rural migrants, and Bukura, a village where many recipients of M-Pesa money transfers from Kibera live. The two researchers have a surprising understanding of the empowerment of women by mobile banking. They argue that “M-Pesa empowers rural women by making it easier for them to solicit funds from their husbands and other contacts in the city.”

Before M-Pesa, women had to spend money and time travelling from their villages to the cities to get this money. The rapid development of mobile money solutions has also made it impossible for men in the cities to have an excuse for not sending money when a family member informs them of need. People know that the money transfer services are available everywhere. M-Pesa has also increased women’s financial autonomy, Morawczynski and Pickens argue, by enabling them to solicit cash from other contacts if their husbands refuse.

Plyler et al. (2010) in their publication, “Community-Level Economic Effects of M-PESA in Kenya: Initial Findings,” focus on economic effects at the community level. Their survey was conducted in two districts, Murang’a and Kitui, that have large rural populations as well as significant town centres, and also in Kibera, the slum close to Nairobi.

Their findings show that women rank improved money security as the most significant security effect of M-Pesa. With M-Pesa, they can accumulate cash and keep it secure not only from pickpockets but also from their husbands. The gain in privacy and control of their expenses is very important.

Also, the study found that rural women are more concerned with food security than rural men, but urban men place more importance on this than urban women. This is because women and men have different roles in ensuring that the family is fed. Rural women bear the responsibility of feeding their families; they tend to produce subsistence crops while men produce cash crops. Men who migrated to urban zones to find jobs usually send most of what they earn to their families in the villages, and they are more numerous than women who migrate from rural zones to cities for the same reasons.

These factors are directly linked to the increased money circulation and expansion of local markets observed since the advent of M-Pesa. Men and women also view health and education as areas where M-Pesa has significantly increased human capital accumulation. This is largely because M-Pesa creates conditions for improving networking and the circulation of cash from urban to rural areas, which allows for new opportunities for people living in the rural areas to address education and health issues.

M-Pesa doesn’t only have advantages, however. Women business owners explained that while M-Pesa saves them money by allowing them to send payments directly to their suppliers instead of travelling to Nairobi or other cities, it also reduces their control of the quality of goods that are delivered to them.

The researchers acknowledge the need for additional investigation to better assess the impact of M-Pesa on food and water security, seen as key elements of sustainable community level development.

The present review of this small sample of publications clearly suggests that M-Pesa is empowering rural women in Kenya by enabling their acquisition of new skills; control of their cash; making a positive difference in their relations with men; capacity to voice their specific needs that M-Pesa can solve: and new and striking business opportunities.

These positive shifts in these categories are consistent with the five domains selected by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative for the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WAIE). The categories of the WAIE are:

  • - Production (input in productive decisions, autonomy in production)
  • - Resources (ownership of assets, purchase, sale, or transfer of assets, access to and decisions on credit)
  • - Income (control over use of income)
  • - Leadership (group member, speaking in public)
  • - Time (workload, leisure)

Yes, M-Pesa shows tremendous potential to allow rural women in Kenya to satisfy the criteria of the WAIE and be sustainably empowered, but we need more research to measure this potential more accurately and assess the gaps. This knowledge would provide a solid basis for the design of new field projects using M-Pesa with the distinctive objective of empowering rural women.

Research in Kenya and other African countries where mobile banking is developing rapidly in rural areas should be strongly encouraged to go deeper into the topic and to provide a solid base for identifying the real advantages, and possible disadvantages, of the mobile banking revolution on the socio-economic conditions of rural African women. This is a task for universities with agriculture and gender programmes, CGIAR Research Centres or service providers, for example International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), and institutions such as African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

It is also necessary to better define and conceptualise what is meant by women’s ‘empowerment.’ For instance, while it might be convenient for rural women to have a tool that makes it easier for them to solicit funds from their husbands and others, I do not share the view that this ‘empowers’ them. Money that women solicit cannot empower them because the person from whom they seek the money may or may not give it to them. Empowerment has more to do with training, loans or any other opportunity for women to earn and manage their own money differently.

It is clear that as we seek to develop and adapt different technological tools such as M-Pesa for rural women in Africa to overcome their economic marginalization, including in the labour market, we must also consider how to transform the structural factors that cause their marginalization in the first place. It is only by paying attention to structural conditions that we can secure durable economic empowerment for women.


This article is part of a collaboration between 50.50's Our Africa and Feminist Africa. Feminist Africa is a journal published by the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, that offers cutting-edge, informative and provocative African feminist scholarship. View all articles in the series



This is an abridged version of an article first published in Feminist Africa, and available here. Please use original source if citing.

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