Photo taken 23 April 2007 shows a man sending money through a pioneering mobile phone service called M-Pesa, in Kenya's capital, Nairobi.
Photo taken 23 April 2007 shows a man sending money through a pioneering mobile phone service called M-Pesa, in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. - 
Listen To The Story
Marketplace

Steve Chiotakis: In famine-ridden Somalia, there are new reports that tally an increasing flow of refugees to Kenya -- almost 9,000 a month. And in refugee camps, there's a new economy emerging -- where Somalis get food, medicine, and even money from relatives -- through their cellphones.

From the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, Marketplace's Scott Tong reports.


Scott Tong: Just past the kids, the goats and camels at this refugee camp, there's shack that says Safaricom -- a cell phone store. A refugee steps to the counter, fiddles with a cheap Nokia, walks out with $16.

Store manager: This man withdrew 1,500 shillings.

The store manager explains: The refugee got noney from a relative far away, via cell phone. Just now, he cashed out -- all you need is a text message and a PIN number. Out of every 10 people here, five live on $1 a day. Three have electricity. Seven do mobile money.

John Hoddinott: The potential for mobile phones is absolutely fantastic.

That's John Hoddinott of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Hoddinott: You can transfer money almost instantaneously, which cuts out a lot of the transactions costs. It's literally mobile money -- they can take it and redeem it in lots of places.

Kenya's system is called M-Pesa, which is so common it's a verb. As in, 'Did you just M-Pesa while driving?' Yes, my cabbie Peter just texted in a church tithe.

Peter: I am almost 500 kilometers from my home church. And the fundraiser is going to start at 11; I had to send a donation.

In a minute, he gets a text.

Peter: Which has confirmed that I've sent...

Tong: I tell you what, you drive.

Turns out you can M-Pesa at the grocery store, pay utility bills, etc. So I join in.

Teller: How much? 1,200

Tong: 1,200.

In Nairobi, I shop for a soccer jersey for my kid. And then, out comes the phone.

Tong: Can I pay you M-Pesa?

Merchant: Yeah, yeah it's OK. No problem.

Tong: OK, now what? Enter the amount.

I text over $12 for the jersey, plus another 26 cents for the transaction. Twenty seconds later, text message.

Tong: Confirmed. Oh cool.

He gets his money, I get my shirt. It's that easy -- for farmers, herders, refugees across Kenya.

At the intersection of I.T. and development, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Scott Tong at @tongscott