Why Kenya’s public transport system is fighting cashless payments


In Nairobi, cash is slowly becoming obsolete. The mobile phone-based money transfer service MPESA lets users pay for nearly everything: from meals and utility bills to safaris. Only the recipient’s phone number is needed and any amount from 10 cents to 750USD can be transferred. But one daily purchase that still requires cash is public transportation.

Although a cashless payment system has been implemented in Nairobi’s buses and matatus (colorful minibuses), uptake has been nearly non-existent. The problem is that adopting new technologies often also means adopting new ways of doing things, and that means changing existing power structures. Whereas MPESA supplemented the financial service sector’s structure, cashless payment systems are threatening bus and matatu conductors’ incomes.

Launched seven years ago, MPESA today dominates daily life in Kenya. Green MPESA signs emblazon shops, bars and even tiny roadside kiosks. “Let me mpesa you” has become a familiar phrase and nearly half of the population has subscribed to the service. Kenya’s public transport sector, in contrast, is a complex semi-private system in which commuters are charged highly variable fares. During rainfalls, for example, matatu drivers triple their prices. To make fare payments cashless and more transparent, transport cards such as Google’s bebapay or the Kenyan Bus Service’s Abiria Card have been introduced.

However, after months of commuting in Nairobi, I have yet to see a transport card in action. In theory, commuters top up the card, the conductor taps it to a phone, a set amount is charged and the commuter receives a confirmation SMS. In reality, matatu and bus conductors are choosing to bypass the system. I have seen conductors pretend the card reader was broken, feign confusion over the card’s purpose and even charge commuters a second time in cash after running their card and pretending it did not work. When speaking to a conductor about these tricks, he explained “in this bus, we only pay with cash.”

Profit structures

Whereas MPESA is aligned with existing market structures, transport cards are threatening a complex system of shared profits and sub-contracts. Before MPESA, many Kenyans were unable to transfer money because they lacked bank accounts and therefore access to financial services. The transaction volume was too low to be of interest to financial institutions and many Kenyans therefore bought airtime as a proxy, which could be transferred to a recipient. MPESA replaced this system without changing the structure: money transfers are still made by mobile phone, but now as mobile cash and not airtime.

Kenya’s public transport system is different from the mobile financial services sector. Cashless payments threaten existing profit structures. Matatu owners usually contract their vehicles to a crew who retain the day’s income after paying a fixed vehicle rent. Transport cards instead bypass the crew and payments directly reach the vehicle owner. The owner can then reverse the roles and pay the crew a salary while keeping the profits.

Matatu crews would essentially lose the benefits of a performance-based income. In addition, transport cards charge fixed fares based on distance, meaning that extra profits from rain and rush hour fees are lost. Add to that the popularity of matatus and buses among traffic police officers, who regularly collect bribes from public transport vehicles. Transport cards would render these vehicles cashless and thus no long offer a source of informal income to the omnipresent traffic police.

In this context, it is therefore not surprising that uptake of transport cards has been slow. Yes, these cards would serve commuters’ and vehicle owners’ interest, but it is the matatu crews and bus drivers who control the systems’ day-to-day implementation. MPESA’s success and transport cards’ struggles highlight that product uptake depends not only on consumers. Much also depends on how new products and services affect a market’s existing power structures. Taking prevalent incentive systems seriously may be a first step in devising a solution for more transparent public transport fares in Kenya.

*Marlen de la Chaux [2013] is a Gates Scholar at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, pursuing a PhD in Management Studies. She is currently a visiting research fellow with iHub in Nairobi, where she studies the opportunities and challenges associated with ICT innovations. Photo credit: Wiki Commons and Felix O.



Action needed on reproductive tourism


Over the past few months, the media has been abuzz with news and international debate over the story of ‘Baby Gammy’ – the twin with Down’s syndrome who was left in Thailand with his Thai surrogate mother, who was commissioned by a West Australian couple.  While some of the facts of the story remain contested, this is one of many ethically charged cases of reproductive tourism that have surfaced in the past decade.

The demand for third party reproduction – whereby a woman provides her uterus (as in surrogacy), and/or a person provides sperm, eggs or embryos in order to enable a person or couple to have a child – is on the rise. Increasingly, couples will travel to countries where laws are more permissible and/or services are more affordable to seek third party reproduction. Countries including Cyprus, India, and Mexico have become prime reproductive tourism destinations.

With the growing demand for third party reproduction, cases such as this one bring to the forefront questions about the commodification of body parts and the human reproductive capacity. They beg the question: what are the ethics of selling body parts, and reproductive labour? Should we be selling these at all? Additionally, is it ethical to be outsourcing gamete donation and surrogacy to countries, like Thailand, where labour is less costly?

A lucrative market

As this industry continues to grow, we should not close the dialogue on these types of questions. This market, however, is a unique one – at its foundation is the reproduction of life itself. Coupled with a powerful socially constructed notion of a biological imperative, and norms surrounding motherhood, fatherhood and family, it is driven by individuals and couples who will go to great lengths to have a baby. This market is a lucrative one – with the potential for high profitability for clinics and agencies, as well as for donors and surrogates. Thus, operating on the premise that for these reasons the baby business will persist, if we have learnt anything from the Baby Gammy case, it should be that our immediate focus orientates about identifying the pressing issues of this industry at the level of those involved. From there, we can try to minimise any negative ramifications for intended parents and the surrogate.

While I will not attempt to provide an exhaustive list, Baby Gammy and similar cases, give us some insight into what these issues might be. The Baby Gammy case, in particular, highlights those issues surrounding the exchange between intended parents and the surrogate. Both parties are vulnerable to not receiving their ‘goods’ (i.e. the surrogate not receiving full, or any, payment and intended parents not receiving the baby). Additionally, a surrogate may end up with a child, as in the case of Baby Gammy, that she did not intend to have. How do we ensure that contracts are created that protect the interests of both parties, and that these contracts are enforceable?

Second are those issues surrounding consent and care of the surrogate. What steps can we take to ensure that surrogates are well informed about the procedure and risks (both physical and psychological) in order to minimise the possibility of coercion and encourage informed consent. Subsequently, how do we ensure that surrogates receive proper medical care? Thirdly, there are issues surrounding the uncertain legal parentage and nationality of children born through surrogacy. Might we be able to increase transparency surrounding the process of achieving citizenship for children born of surrogacy? Alternatively, could we enable it in some instances, without opening the floodgates for reproductive tourism?

While the Hague Conference on International Private Law is considering drawing up standards and regulations for international surrogacy, this will no doubt be a long-term undertaking.  In the meantime, major fertility professional bodies and leaders in the field need to take a role in promoting acceptable standards of care and addressing issues arising from reproductive tourism.  The case of Baby Gammy has highlighted some of those issues that are pressing. With international attention focused on reproductive tourism, now is the time to harness this attention in order to promote dialogue surrounding this industry and take steps towards reducing harm for those involved.

*Katie Hammond [2011] did an MPhil in Multi-disciplinary gender studies and is currently at Wolfson College studying for a PhD in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. This article was first published on Polygeia.com.  Picture credit: BBC.


Wisdom from a writing workshop: plans, practices and places to go


On September 24th, I joined with a fellow tribe for a one-day workshop on writing techniques. The tribe: social scientists (PhD students and post-docs) with aspirations of writing longer pieces related to health and illness.

I’m writing to share what I learned.

Multiple pressures confront us. The juggle of two or three research projects running concurrently. A brain divided between managing research and putting pen to paper. The challenge of avoiding poor writing and reaching for our best voice.

To take on these challenges, we used the day to explore ideas and practices related to writing. Matt Lane (Post-Graduate Skills Training Officer for the University of Cambridge) led the morning session with interactive lectures and small group work, with the afternoon focused on our own individual writing projects within a group setting.

A few key pieces of wisdom emerged.

Planning to write

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight E. Eisenhower

Eisenhower’s view of battle is apt for writing. Many inputs go into writing a piece: finding a topic, defining a research strategy, executing the research itself and writing smaller, cumulative pieces. Yet taking the time to plan these inputs often escapes us. “Just write!”, says the self.

But a little planning can indeed be indispensable. Lane encouraged us to view our writing projects beyond the completion date: what does wild success look like? What are all the things that need to get done to achieve this success? And perhaps most importantly: what’s the next immediate action you can take? Making this process concrete seems obvious, but is often a step that writers skip.

When it comes to finally composing a piece, Lane encouraged us to “write in layers”. Build the intellectual and rhetorical architecture, whether via an outline or topic and transition sentences. As we build the layers, Eisenhower’s voice returns: earlier plans for the piece often will get replaced with a new sense for direction. As the architecture of the argument and piece is built, attending to the body of paragraphs will come more naturally.

Practices for the moment

Before a run, I usually stretch for a few minutes. But just before starting to write, my usual thought is: let’s get started! Lane encouraged us to use “writing warm-ups” for 5-15 minutes just before digging into a writing project. A warm-up prompt could be what do I want to find out today? What did I learn yesterday? What was I thinking about in the shower or over breakfast? A few minutes of warming-up activates the brain. I’ve been trying this approach, and it’s been working!

The next practice on the list: time management. Often, when thinking about writing a longer piece, many of us imagine blocking out a week and large chunks of time during the day. But this perception can backfire. With the thought of large blocks of time, distractions more easily infiltrate the day. Uninterrupted sitting in front of the computer goes from minutes to hours. A long writing session might end with only a few minutes of real productivity. Instead, write in smaller chunks of time. Take a break after 45 minutes of focused attention. Set micro goals – completing a paragraph or section, for example – and have the discipline to walk away from the writing for a short break before returning to tackle the next goal.

Finally, in the afternoon, we tested “writing groups” to work on our individual projects. Writing in groups allows members to verbalise goals, hold each other accountable and act as a support group to work through road-blocks. While writing alone is the norm, having people around can make the process more fun and productive. I had one of my most productive afternoons of writing in weeks!

Places to go for more resources

Spending intentional time to reflect on writing practices carries many benefits, such as figuring out new practices and habits worth trying out. The other benefit are the new resources that can be used for further exploration and learning. Here are a few places to go:

Check out a Cambridge writing group

How to Write a Thesis, Rowena Murray

The Craft of Research, Booth et al.

Getting Things Done, David Allen

For some inspiration, check out one of my favorite places to go: Brainpickings. Search for pieces on writing, and you’ll be sure to find many gems.

*Victor Roy [2009] is a second year PhD student in sociology and political economy as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He is also an MD candidate at Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago as a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans. Picture credit: Sakhorn38 and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Will India and Japan forge a New Asia?


Amid the cheering of nearly 20,000 supporters and the vocal protests of academics and human rights advocates, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s theatrical appearance in New York on September 28th embodied many of the contradictions of his highly polarising popular mandate. Still, despite the attention understandably being drawn to Modi’s first visit to America (having previously been denied a visa due to accusations of complicity in the Gujarat killings of 2002), his visit to Japan one month previous may prove in the long term to be more significant.

Much has been said about the economic and geopolitical potential of a stronger relationship between India and Japan, widely acknowledged as two of the key powerhouses of the 21st century. On issues of defence, demography and technology both countries complement each other well, with India offering a youthful labour pool and massive market in contrast to Japan’s ageing population and potential for technological investment.

In assessing this relationship, however, some have gone beyond economic analysis, arguing that ‘historic links’ or ‘civilisational’ harmony can provide the glue for a relationship that transcends political pragmatism, with Modi himself saying that his visit to Kyoto “reflects the ancient foundations of our contemporary relations.” As Asia regains its historic role as the economic and geopolitical centre of gravity in a world-system that has become global, it is worth thinking about how these civilisational arguments can be interpreted within a broader context of modern Asian history and political thought.

Interwar Pan-Asianism and why it matters

Following widespread disillusionment with Eurocentric visions of modernity in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, similar arguments regarding the shared heritage of India and Japan were used by thinkers such as Rash Behari Bose in order to present a powerful counter-narrative to the oppressive status quo of Western imperialism. Not to be confused with the more famous Subhas Chandra Bose, Rash Behari Bose was a Bengali revolutionary who gained widespread notoriety when he threw a bomb at Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy and Governor General of India, during a triumphal procession at Delhi in 1912.

Fleeing British authorities in India, Bose lived out the rest of his life in Japan, where he became an important and influential advocate of Asian unity. At Nagasaki in 1926, Bose attended an international conference with representatives from all over Asia, whose stated goal was “to bring about permanent world peace based on justice and equality and secure the freedom and happiness of all races without regard to class, racial, or religious differences.” This ideology, called Pan-Asianism, argued that a new diplomacy centred in a ‘New Asia’ was the solution to an international system suffering from the twin scourges of capitalist imperialism and socialist materialism. 

Despite the enormous potential of the ideology in charting an alternative course for international politics, Pan-Asianism came to be appropriated as a political strategy by Japanese nationalists seeking to enhance the legitimacy of their own imperial agenda in the build-up to the Second World War. Aligning Pan-Asianism with right-wing militarism resulted in a loss of credibility for the ideology, particularly among Korean and Chinese intellectuals suffering under Japanese imperial ambitions, and the New Asia envisioned by Bose vanished into obscurity in the postwar period.

Understanding the global political thought of interwar radicals like Rash Behari Bose can provide a useful framework for charting potential courses for bilateral relations between countries like India and Japan in the

21st century. With the motivations of both Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe being questioned by critics wary of right-wing nationalist agendas, the story of interwar Pan-Asianism should be a source of both optimism and caution. If this is the dawn of Bose’s New Asia, the willingness of leaders to learn from the past may play a key role in shaping the course of the future.

*Joseph McQuade [2013] is doing a PhD in History. Picture of Narendra Modi. Credit: Mayur Bhatt and Wiki Commons.