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Helping through your handset: M-Changa

“One of the biggest questions we asked ourselves was ‘What’s after M-Pesa?’ What’s the next step?”

Says M-Changa CTO, David Mark. In our hour-long interview he goes on to (rhetorically) ask me, ‘Who’s used the unique position of Kenya, where 70% of the people have access to mobile money?’

For David and co-founding CEO, Kyai Mullei - it is, without a shred of doubt, their fundraising platform M-Changa which can take advantage of Kenya’s success story.

Ask most people about money in Kenya and you’ll get the same response: M-Pesa.

Launched by Kenya’s biggest telcos, M-Pesa brought an SMS-based P2P payments system to Kenya’s masses. Bolstered by 40,000 ‘agents’ (small shops, to you and I) around the country, it’s enabled Kenyans to send each other money quickly and without a bank account. Now, it lets you pay for goods too, cementing M-Pesa as the definitive payments option for Kenyans. With that as the foundation Kyai and David have begun building.

Harambee: This type of reciprocal giving happens a lot of times over the course of the year”

My understanding of harambee (har-aam-bay) wasn’t quite right until I stopped thinking about it from a British point of view. It’s the Kenyan tradition of pulling together and helping the community. It’s about funding local projects, weddings, funerals, school fees and more. There’s no official British equivalent I can think of (and harambee is on Kenya’s coat of arms, making it fairly official) but it’s about helping out those you care for and, crucially, at some point down the line they’ll help you back.

In short, M-Changa positions itself as the digital answer to an analogue problem. How do you transpose a centuries-old tradition to a modern society? Well, with M-Changa you start a harambee, send the invites and get the money flowing all through a text message.

“The psychology of giving is one of the most complicated things I’ve encountered - and I’m a philosophy graduate”

I steered the conversation towards the boring stuff (money, financing, infrastructure) but we often circled back to a few things: culture and psychology. M-Changa’s business feels like it’s as much about the human condition as it is technology. David and Kyai relentlessly tweak and re-tweak the M-Changa user experience to maximise its efficacy and the ‘social pressure’ it can exert on potential donors to a project.

‘From the anthropological point of view, we want to understand the process, how you choose who you give to, so that we can provide the product at the most applicable time,’ says David.

He goes on: ‘The psychology of giving is incredibly complex…the companies that understand this culture of giving will have an amazing opportunity.’

Anthropology? Psychology? And I thought this was going to be about crowdfunding.

They’ve partnered up with ‘Financial Services Deepening Kenya’ a DFID-backed programme that supports the development of financial services in Kenya. With that partnership they’ll gain access to a wealth of peer-to-peer transaction data: customer transaction histories, financial diaries, even the number of siblings a person has. A priceless data set which will enable M-Changa to increase their understanding of the fundraising process and change their MO if they need to.

“WhatsApp is a great and cheap way for the diaspora to communicate with the people locally”

Knowing that no community or technology sits still for very long, M-Changa is already looking ahead to the next growing platform, the increasingly popular mobile chat app, WhatsApp. By exploiting WhatsApp’s group chat function, they’ll bring together families and friends across continents in a virtual harambee.

What I felt the most in this conversation was the intense personal connection David and Kyai have with M-Changa. It stems from personal family history, years of experience in Kenya, knowledge of the people, the culture and the land. It's more than business.

'Moving from a physical harambee to something more digital - it's an interaction that needs to be recreated appropriately and tastefully,' finishes David.


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