In the fight against petty corruption, a potentially game-changing development is the rise of cashless payments. In a world where people do not use or carry cash, petty bribes to traffic cops or low-level government bureaucrats are either foolish—in that they require a processing mechanism and are therefore easy to detect—or altogether impossible. While some wealthier jurisdictions have made substantial steps towards a cashless economy (see Sweden and Hong Kong), a surprising leader in the rise of cashless payments has been Kenya, reinforcing its role as the Silicon Savannah of Africa and a potential hub for innovation in combatting petty corruption.
In 2007, the Kenyan telecom company Safaricom launched M-PESA, a mobile banking service that allows people to transfer money to other users using their mobile phones, and to withdraw cash from any of over 40,000 agents across the country, creating convenient mobile bank accounts accessible to virtually all Kenyans. M-PESA has been remarkably successful: As of 2015, M-PESA had 20 million subscribers (over two-thirds of Kenya’s adult population), and by some estimates around 25% of the country’s GDP flows through the service. The brilliance of M-PESA is that users do not need to carry around vast sums of cash; instead, they can treat any M-PESA agent as an ATM, and withdraw cash only when needed.
A recent plan has suggested leveraging technology like M-PESA to create cashless payments on the shared buses, known as matatus, that are the main form public transportation in Kenya. Traffic police routinely stop matatus to extort bribes from the drivers and conductors of the vehicles, who often in turn demand cash from passengers in order to continue on their route. In 2014, Kenya’s National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) proposed a policy whereby matatus would become cashless, shifting payments to a more easily regulated electronic system. All commuters would have prepaid cards, or funds accessible through their mobile phone that they could use to pay the conductor a flat rate for a given route. Drivers would be discouraged from extorting payments to fund bribes through the online system, as this system would be more stringently regulated and payments would be more easily tracked. Given the ubiquity of M-PESA agents acting as de facto ATMs throughout the country, commuters as well as matatu drivers and conductors would in theory not need to carry cash at all on these routes, thus reducing the incidence of bribes paid to traffic police.
The implementation of this plan, however, has been slow and fraught with difficulties. As of the time of writing, only some matatu associations have begun accepting cashless payments, and cash payments still predominate. In January of 2016, the Chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, Simon Kimutai, stated that full implementation will likely take up to four years, despite the government’s more optimistic timelines. One problem is inter-operability: Ideally, there should be a uniform set of payments on all matatu routes, but this is not yet the case; the unfortunate consequence is that even in matatus with the equipment to receive cashless payments, drivers and conductors still accept cash payments to avoid logistical difficulties. A potentially more serious problem is that some matatu drivers are actively resisting the plan by pretending the card readers are broken or feigning confusion over the new system. One reason for this resistance is the drivers’ desire to preserve their ability to inflate prices at rush hour or in poor weather. But drivers may also resist the cashless system in order to avoid retribution by the criminal gangs that currently patrol certain matatu routes and force drivers to pay bribes for protection. (Similar problems arose in Guatemala, when a similar cashless plan was enacted: When the cashless system limited drivers’ ability to pay these “protection” bribes, gangs reacted with violence, burning buses and threatening drivers and passengers alike.)
These problems mean that in the short term, it is unlikely that this plan to shift to cashless payments will have much effect on the incidence of petty bribes on matatus, as commuters will be forced to carry cash all the same. However, I remain optimistic that this plan nevertheless represents an exciting development, and is one that will ultimately have a meaningful impact. There are three main reasons for my optimism: