Good Design Thinking Strategy is Good Business

Hicron's Expert View: Lessons businesses can learn from the African startup's experience
Konrad Mazur
Konrad Mazur
Business Transformation Expert
September 19
5 min

Some designers of new services do not realize how great a source of inspiration and advancement of Design Thinking can come from developing countries. Countries of Africa, not usually associated with technological development, boast a surprisingly high level of sophistication in mobile services, especially mobile payments.

Not long ago, we witnessed the launch of payments using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology in Poland. As the European leader in contactless payments, Poland was a test field for this technology. NFC arouses a lot of excitement and expectations, but interestingly, the use of mobile in payments is not a new idea. The pioneer and leader in this area is a country very rarely associated with such innovation. Kenya – a country where a service called M-PESA has been in use since 2007.

Design Thinking – Good Market and UX Research

East Africans’ big problems have become their opportunities. What is not always the general rule, these have been put to good use.

Conditions in Kenya in 2007, may have seemed unpromising for the development of electronic services:

  • Few Kenyans owned computers.
  • Even fewer had access to the Internet.
  • Ownership of a bank account was rare, especially in rural areas (In 2009, only 19% of adult Kenyans had a bank account).
  • The network of ATMs and bank branches was poorly developed. If one already had a bank account, the nearest ATM was miles (or tens of miles) away from where one lived.

Design Thinking – Problem Statement

On the other hand, a positive feature of the market turned out to be the fast-growing mobile network, which became the foundation of the newly emerging service.

The demand for a new way of transferring money in Kenya resulted indirectly from the country’s poor economic situation. This caused the migration of the population from rural to urban areas. Then the challenge arose of how to transfer the money earned to the families who stayed back home. There were 3 possibilities:

  • Giving money by people who were going to the workers’ hometowns.
  • Using bus drivers and matatu (collective cabs).
  • Sending money by mail.

The first two ways were risky, as money often did not reach its destination.  The post office, on the other hand, operated inefficiently and irregularly. In 2007, Safaricom, East Africa’s largest mobile operator, came to the rescue and launched a service called M-PESA.

M-PESA as an expamle of Good Design Thinking Strategy - Hicron Software House

Design Thinking – Solution

M-PESA is a mobile-only finance service developed by Safaricom and Vodacom (Kenya, Tanzania). The service also operates in Afghanistan, South Africa, and India. In 2014 it was launched in Romania, and in 2015 in Albania. The service allows users to store money in a special bank account, make transfers and pay for purchases and services at almost any store via SMS.

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The main advertising slogan for the newly launched service was “Send money home”. Simple and clear communication was the key in the country where most of the population did not understand what cashless money transfers were.  M-PESA (“Pesa” means “money” in Swahili) made it possible to send a certain amount of money using a cell phone to another phone owner, not necessarily registered in the system.

In addition to sending money to loved ones, M-PESA customers can with the phone also:

  • Pay bills
  • Check their account balance
  • Take a loan
  • Make cash deposits and statements with authorized agents
  • Debit their phone
  • Pay for an airline ticket (the system is honored not only by Kenya Airways, but also British Airways and Virgin Atlantic)

Each functionality is a response to the needs of the market, resulting in a system that is simple and tailored to the needs of users.

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The M-PESA application is very simple to use. The ascetic interface design is influenced by the devices Kenyans use. These are older-generation phones, which do not yet have, among other things, built-in touch screens, Internet access or other functionalities that smartphones we are familiar with have.

Kenyans mostly use phones that were widespread in Europe a dozen years ago.

What’s more, the application has a very simple information architecture. All its elements are the bare minimum, which guarantees efficient and intuitive operations.

M-PESA application expansion

In 2012, about $61 billion was transferred in Africa using cell phones. This is a larger sum than the aggregate transfers made via this method in Europe and the US. By last year, M-PESA, had about 17 million registered users in Kenya. In addition to its home country, the service has also been introduced in other developing countries such as Tanzania, and South Africa.

Concluding remark on M-PESA example

The people of Africa, despite their lack of access to the latest technologies and devices, are forerunners in mobile trends. For this reason, it is worth looking at new mobile solutions on the continent when designing services for the European or American market.

In the article, I focused only on describing the application used in mobile banking. However, while collecting materials, I repeatedly came across examples of other services, such as health care, which are also worth a closer look.  The success shows that Africa can play an important role in the development of modern mobile services and shaping patterns for good design thinking practices.

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M-PESA itself has contributed to the rapid growth of other companies producing digital services and has greatly accelerated the development of start-ups in Africa, precisely in the regions with the most users of the app.

Konrad Mazur
Konrad Mazur
Business Transformation Expert
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