Water is like liquid gold in drought-stricken areas of Africa, so it’s no surprise to learn water conflict and corruption is common. Safaricom’s M-PESA system of cell phone cash transfer, originally released in 2007, could help quell the dissidence. A Kenya community is working with Grundfos Lifelink and Safaricom to develop a solar-powered water vending system that allows consumers to pay with a credit-filled smart card. When the credit runs out, water-seekers can add more using the M-PESA mobile banking system.
M-PESA was originally designed to let microfinance borrowers–think Kiva recipients–collect and repay loans with Safaricom’s network of cell phone airtime resellers. But during testing, Safaricom found that people really just wanted to use M-PESA to make basic banking transactions without ever entering their local branch. So now M-PESA allows customers to deposit and withdraw cash, transfer money to other customers, pay bills, and buy more airtime. The service has ballooned in popularity over the last few years, with 6.5 million subscribers as of May.
Undoubtedly, the M-PESA-powered water vending system will prove popular as well. We’ll find out just how popular in short order–the system will be installed in 20 Kenyan communities by the end of the year.
If water supplies become tight enough, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see similar systems pop up in the United States. Cell phone payment systems like Zong, Boku, and Obopay are fast gaining ground, and who’s to say that they won’t one day be used to grant us all access to the one resource we most take for granted?