Daily Life, Kenya, Nairobi
Comments 2

Getting a Mobile Education

As a designer and having worked for global companies, I more or less knew how mobile usage worked outside of the U.S. I had experienced it to a degree – but it was just for travel and still on the shackled-to-your-contract system. Now, I’m learning a whole new system by living it.

I still need to memorize my Kenyan number, but I’m getting close to knowing it by heart. I’ve learned how to dial local numbers. Yes, I had to learn that.

I’ve set up an M-pesa account and have started using it a little bit. That was very easy to learn. You top up money onto your account. It’s accessible from your phone, any kind of mobile phone, not just smart phones. You use it to pay anything from rent, bills, food delivery, to purchases in stores and peer-to-peer payments.

I feel as though America is behind on this. Yes, you can use your phone to make purchases now. But, so much of that ability is tied to what partnerships the merchant has. Is it tied to PayPal? Does that store use Apple Pay? Does it use Square? And, you still need to tie it to a bank account or credit card. With M-pesa, you can tie it to a bank account, but you don’t have to – it’s essentially just having cash accessible from your phone and it’s accepted just about everywhere.

What was my first M-pesa transaction? I bought yarn and knitting needles at Buttons and Bows at Ya-Ya (one of the many shopping centers of Nairobi). I paid too much. I should have bargained. But that’s another story.

I’ve also discovered Wave, an app that allows you to top up M-pesa accounts from your U.S. bank account. For Kenyans in the States, it’s a great way to send money home. For people visiting Kenya or people like me who are still setting up a bank account, it’s a great way to top up your own account. I wish I had known about it earlier to have avoided some ATM fees (although you do still need cash).

I’m using WhatsApp a lot now. I had learned about it while on a trip to São Paulo, but I never really used it much. Now I use it all the time to instant message people both here in Kenya and back home.

I’m learning how data plans work here. I was cautious about it because I always had a truly unlimited plan. I wasn’t sure how much data I actually need because I never had to think about it before. It turns out I don’t need all that much.

Part of that is because I don’t really use all that many of my apps. When I do it’s often off of wi-fi. The other part of the reason is because I no longer whip out my phone all the time. You need to be situationally aware in Nairobi. That means paying attention to what’s around you and not being absorbed by a Twitter feed just because you have three minutes of waiting time.

My phone does still have a bit of entertainment value. I won’t pretend that it’s purely functional for me now. But, I do use it in a more practical manner.

I have a few more things to learn, such as how to get voicemail onto my plan. On top of that, I am sure I’ll also discover a few things about the mobile system here that I didn’t know. But I’m sure I’ll figure it all out.

Special thanks to Wallace for telling me about Wave.


  1. Nestor says

    Hi guys, it looks as though things are arranging themselves (not without some effort, I’m sure) nicely, and you’re having some fun discovering your new surroundings. That’s great.
    Nothing new here, scaffold still up. I suppose that by the time you decide to come visit, the project will have finished, Maybe. Any local laws similar to NYC in Nairobi?
    How secure is M-pesa? It sounds real convenient. Uh-oh here comes UPS with a Christmas load, so I’ll talk to you some other time.
    Keep posting!


    • Yes, we are settling in!

      There’s a lot of construction in Nairobi – lots of new buildings going up. So I guess I’m still seeing my fair share of scaffolding!

      M-pesa is very secure. I haven’t heard of anyone hacking into the system. I the the simplicity of it keeps it secure. It’s only the cash you’ve added. And even if someone steals your phone, there is no way for that person to get to your money in M-pesa.



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