Nairobi Street

The National Transport and Safety Authority of Kenya (NTSA) is seeking to ban use of cash for matatu fares. This is likely to happen very soon once “the government approves a digital fare collection system that will also have the technical capability to contact trace passengers in the fight against the novel coronavirus disease”, reports the Business Daily.

The Authority which recently re-approved Transport Disruptor Startup SWVL, has reportedly advertised for bids inviting tech companies to install mobile software and web applications for the nearly 200,000 matatus in the country. All PSVs will, going forward, be required to only accept cashless transactions.

The government believes that this will be a good way for them to do contact tracing in the fight against the coronavirus. After paying for a ride, your personal details will be stored – including name, and phone number – and these will be important in contacting you in case anyone in the matatu is found to be infected.

For some, this will read like good news. But for many, this reads like a weird new way for the government to track its citizens. I am not against going completely cashless, it is where the whole world is headed. However, we need to rethink a couple of things before we get there. Rushing into it will lead to so many problems in the future.

The most important things to think of before going cashless are:

  1. Privacy
  2. Dominance

Privacy:

A few days ago, a friend was conned. She received a phone call from a purported Safaricom Customer Care Agent who conned her over KES. 3000 without her realising. The agent – who knew her full names – asked her if she had recently tried to register a SIM card – which she had. A day earlier she had bought a new SIM card and had failed to register it after the M-Pesa agent told her the registration process wasn’t going through, that she should come the next day. So when she got a call asking her of the same, and telling her that a couple of details were needed, it was easy to believe it was Safaricom following up.

She wasn’t asked for her PIN nope. She was just told to key it in, and “her details would be updated”. If you know about Safaricom’s STK push, you know what was happening here. The other party had initiated a payment, and all my friend needed to do is key in her PIN and lose her money. Of course, she didn’t read the STK push message. Of course, she only realised after the call that she’d lost money. And the cherry on top was that she, later on, got a message telling her to rate the services of the agent whom she’d just spoken with. The message came from the name CHIPPER which I believe is some Bulk SMS platform.

So why such a long story? Well, because this is something I’ve talked about before. M-Pesa has some serious privacy issues. If I have your number, I know your full name. If I have your full name and I call you from a weird number, I must be legit. If I sound convincing, I can easily con you. But not just that, I can easily steal your identity, I can create fake profiles about you, I can do so much from just your name and number. M-Pesa is more accurate than Truecaller.

You can read more about M-Pesa privacy issues here:

Safaricom is yet to address any of these issues. And being that they’re like the only mobile money solution in Kenya right now, with a ban to cash payments in matatus, M-Pesa will definitely be the default payment mode used in all Public Service Vehicles. So you’ll board a matatu like a normal human being, but once you alight your name, and phone number will remain with the conductor. Can they be trusted with such data? Should they? What are some of the issues that could arise from them having these details? From stalking to threats. From lies to intimidation. From weird calls to the selling of numbers to advertisers. So much will happen.

The government thinks that this will be a good way for them to trace all possible COVID-19 patients. From the matatu, incase anyone gets infected, they will be able to know whom they’ve come to contact with. But this will be raising up a lot of issues:

  1. One. It means that the government will be requesting the databases of these matatus to see who travelled with who. Who will be issuing this data? Is it the matatu operators, the tech firms that create the payment system, or the mobile money companies? Could other players get this data? What are the repercussions if this data lands on wrong hands?
  2. Two. It also means that post-COVID-19, the government will able to request and track the movement of people. What are the chances that this could be used against certain people?

Dominance:

If we are to force the matatu industry to go cashless, we need to think a lot about dominance from the onset. M-Pesa is currently the most used mode of payment in the country. Yes, arguments can and have been made that the percentage of cashless transactions is still very low compared to cash transactions and that the field is open to everyone. But access to that field is increasingly limited by the popularity of M-Pesa.

How many mobile money solutions can you think of right now that could be used in matatu payments? Will you be willing to use your bank card to pay for an 80 shilling ride? Will you be willing to buy a debit card for payments? If so, how will you be topping up the debit card? Using M-Pesa? Will you be willing to have a mobile wallet where you have cash in advance and from which a matatu app deducts fare each time you take a ride? How will you be topping up the wallet?

I fear that forcing people to go cashless without properly planning will only make M-Pesa more dominant. For the last three months, with the corona situation, M-Pesa has been everything. Access is easy, use-cases are endless. M-Pesa just works for many, unlike things like Airtel Money which are yet to get a footing. But giving them such a headstart will make it difficult for other players to even join in.

We can’t, however, fail to go cashless because of these fears. We can instead think of ways to ensure anyone who comes in, later on, has the same advantage. So here are a couple of things I propose:

  1. Every software application that is to be used by matatus should have the option for all current mobile money solutions, and the option for adding future solutions. They should work with everything that exists currently: from cards to apps, to M-Pesa, Airtel Money, etc.
  2. Transaction rates should be zero. Kenyans should not pay a single extra dime for cashless transport fares. These applications should never charge anyone anything extra. That applies to both the owners of the matatus receiving the cash and the customers making the payment. So whether paying by M-Pesa or by Card or by whatever, there should be zero transaction costs.

Closing:

The government needs to answer the questions on privacy before we force the matatu industry to go cashless. COVID-19 shouldn’t be an excuse for the loss of people’s privacy. It shouldn’t be an excuse to letting personal information be accessed by parties we are not comfortable with. Kenyans should be made aware of the fact that such data is important, and that privacy is a fundamental right.

Tech firms are expected to submit bids to the NTSA by June 16th. I fear that this won’t be enough time for the conversation to explore all possible angles I may not have raised here.

What are your thoughts?

1 COMMENT

  1. “These applications should never charge anyone anything extra. That applies to both the owners of the matatus receiving the cash and the customers making the payment.”

    Would the apps provide the service for free, yet they are commercial businesses?

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