Estonian Public Broadcasting is doing a documentary about mobile phones in Kenya for the Media for Development project. So author Tiiu Laks, director Märten Vaher and cameraman Meelis Kadastik went to Kenya's capital Nairobi and neighbouring towns in June 2015 to find out more about it. The film crew got a lot of help from a local production company Frinant Pictures, mainly from Kent Libiso, Anthony Andere and Mavado Ondivou'r. But also from Estonia's honorary consul in Kenya – Kadri Humal-Ayal.
Mobile phone penetration in Kenya is 80% and even the people living in Africa's biggest urban slum, Kibera, that we talked to, said that even though mobile phones are expensive, they do not even consider the option of not buying one.
As we set out to look for the best mobile application in Kenya, that helps to improve people's lives, it was soon clear that the only application that has managed to really affect Kenyans' lives is M-Pesa.
In Kenya, not that many people have bank accounts, because in rural areas, bank offices are far and in urban settings the queues in the offices are long. Young people living and working in the city have to send cash home to their families by bus or other means. Carrying around amounts of cash is a big security risk.
M-Pesa was launched in 2007 by Vodafone and it allows people to deposit money on their mobile accounts and send it to other M-Pesa clients in seconds. You can deposit or withdraw money via M-Pesa agents. A few years ago, there were 500 bank offices in Kenya, but 18000 M-Pesa agents.
All the people we talked to in Kenya, said that M-Pesa has helped improve their lives, because it solved all the issues that were mentioned above. And while these problems might not look like much to us, they were causing Kenyans a lot of headache.
Kenyans soon realised that via mobile apps (mostly SMS based), people can get help that is not provided by the state. We talked to a farmer in rural Kenya that is not connected to the power grid and gets her electricity from a solar panel that she pays for via her mobile phone. We talked to a company that provides farmers with information that helps grow the efficiency of their farm work. We talked to a start-up that gives free IT education to girls from slums and finds them internships afterwards. We talked to university students that are creating systems to digitalize police database, so that when you are pulled over for speeding, they can see if you have previous violations without having to take you down to the police station. Digitalization also helps fight corruption, because then every action leaves a digital fingerprint and it is harder to tamper with things then.
When we asked one of our interviewees if Kenyans adopt new technologies easily, he said: You can imagine that when they trust their money with a mobile phone, they would trust everything else with it as well. And that is very true.
Although Kenyan president urged African countries to give up foreign aid, it is still needed, even in the tech scene. Many of the start-ups struggle to find further funding and die out after a year. And many of the app developers still do not know how things should be done though user experience design.
But the spirit of Kenya is very much ready to get things going. As we witnessed every day - every Kenyan is a real entrepreneur and that is much needed to get things done in this quickly developing country.
* (7,5 % of Kenyans now have smartphones and they mostly use Whatsapp to communicate with each other, not like e-mails and sms like in the old world.)