Cell Phone Minutes: the Next Currency

Van Mensvoort
December 31st 2008

It might just be my old nature mind, but I still find it a daily miracle: being able to walk into the bakery around the corner and trade a piece of paper – called money – for a loaf of bread. We tend to associate virtuality with video games, but when we think further we realize it has penetrated our lives ages ago. Take money; it is as virtual as the Matrix, but as long as we all believe in it its value it works fine.

Back to Africa. We're not used to Africa taking lead in new technology. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention and it couldn’t be more true in case of Africa, where pre-paid airtime is fast becoming the ‘virtual’ currency, overcoming conventional currency exchange and lack of banking infrastructure.

There are over 100 million mobile phones in Africa, and it is one of the fastest growing mobile regions. This number will increase to 378 million by 2011, according to Portio Research. Cell phones are already used for music downloads, text messaging, video games and personal piggy banking. Kenya is home to an impressive cutting-edge mobile tool: M-PESA, the world's only system for sending both minutes and money via SMS. (The "m" stands for mobile. Pesa is Swahili for money.) Airtime minutes automatically load onto the phone of their recipient. The cash is collected from one of the many M-PESA shops dotting the country.

beeping in africa

Recently when the violence in Kenya flared up, pre-paid cell phone cards became the most valuable good around. Most people don't have monthly cell phone usage plans – they just buy pre-paid cards as they need them. But when the stores and kiosks that sell the phone cards were closed due to the violence, they became really hard to come by and soon, cell phone credit became more valuable than cash. Charities have even begun distributing the phone cards which recipients then use to buy food and other essentials.

Cellphone africa

Sources: Why Africa, TheWorld.org, Reuters. See also: Tribal Communication Technology, Fishing by Phone.

Share your thoughts and join the technology debate!public: 1


Posted 14/04/2013 – 18:36

Someone should pop over there and tell them about bitcoin...

Idowu Ayoola
Posted 11/09/2012 – 18:50

Absolutely! Last time I was in Nigeria, a week ago, the Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria is borrowing from this trend/means to give money to local farmers (with hardly civilization) as a means to provide fertilizer subsidy for them. Essentially, they are bridging between Rural farmers, Agro-businesses, banks and the Government through mobile technology.

John C. Yaun III
Posted 24/10/2011 – 14:36

I knew airtime minutes were going to be used as currency one day by millions, when a long time ago I saw a story about using your cell phone to buy a coke from a vending machine. Nokia phones were the main subject of that story. What I need to have happen is for more and more businesses to get a way for them to acccept them as payment. Like scanning your credit card, just push the star key or whatever to pay with your airtime. Nothing more than pointing your phone's earpiece at a terminal and pressing a button or two. Something like that. I want to have a vending machine that will only take plastic credit, any card with value on it, or cell phone airtime, so that the money goes straight into my bank account and not a box at the bottom of the vending machine vunerable to theft. Wouldn't that take the cake, all the way to the bank? So have you heard of such card readers/scanners? This story about cell airtime being currency in Africa and the picture of the mud phone against that young boys face tells a very exciting story of where technilogical advances is going and how it will help third world countries develope at a much faster rate than coventional industrialization or argribusiness could ever do. Connecting to other people with other concepts of how to achieve, or goods and services and using the airwaves to do it, crosses all borders and boundries and eliminates their stopping those connections between those that have and those that need.

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