By IMTFI researcher Sibel Kusimba
All eyes are on Kenya to understand the success story of mobile money transfer systems here. What factors have made mobile money so widely used and well trusted? What kind of brave new world are all these mobiles and “flying money” creating in East Africa?
|Naima Mobile Money SNA Graph. Naima, a 46 year-old farmer, |
is married to Kiingi. Node size indicates centrality.
Relatives are in color, siblings in a common color; friends are in white.
In 2012 and 2014, IMTFI supported our project on mobile money use in Western Kenya – where rural and peri-urban communities are engaged in subsistence farming, wage labor, and a variety of small-scale entrepreneurial activities.
Our research uses social network analysis to map the social relationships created and revealed through money transfer. In this area, people use money transfer to create networks of reciprocal support with friends, relatives, savings groups, and co-workers.
Networks are often studied for their presumed benefit to individuals. Personal “networking” is often thought to be one of the development advantages of the mobile phone. How do networks support individual empowerment? How do they shape a “networked self” (Rainie and Wellman 2012:126)?
In a video made by Steven McCord and with the support of IMTFI, we explore money transfer networks of families and friends:
In a webinar sponsored by the American Anthropological Association, I expand on this discussion to particular features of money transfer networks, including reciprocity, centrality, and brokerage:
Overall, this research found that a highly instrumental view of networks as personal empowerment doesn’t fit for Western Kenya. In this area, at least, we found that mobile money use is better seen as an amplifier (Toyama 2011) of economic and social practices of reciprocity, friendship, belonging, and obligation. For example, people often create networks with siblings, pooling resources to help a parent, pay school fees for nieces and nephews, or make an investment. The close, life-long relationships of siblings in East African families are well-documented by anthropologists.
Based on our study, we developed an alternative view of money transfer—not as personal “networking” but as participating in a group. This mindset of the group plays important roles in how money transfer is used. The network graphs show that reciprocity creates dense networks of sharing that spread benefits across the group rather than to specific individuals.
Mobile money provides another example of the paradox of technological change: however “new” a technology is, people’s intentions with it will probably adjust much more slowly, if at all. As Conrad Kottack (1999:34) put it, “People usually change just enough to keep what they have.”
Kottack, Conrad. 1999. The New Ecological Anthropology. American Anthropologist 101:23-35.
Toyama, Kentaro. 2011. Myths of Technology for International Development. Lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, October 19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Kx-KFEzlbk
Rainie, L., and Wellman, B. 2012. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.