Researching Sprawling ‘Mobile’ Infrastructures in Nairobi
Prince K. Guma
26 April, 2017
Imagine you just alighted at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport; only 25 minutes from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Obviously, the first thing that you will want to do is get connected. At the airport, there are often a handful of enthusiastic mobile telecommunications agents and personnel that are readily on standby, more than willing to introduce you to their product, service or offers. It is at this point that one is often led to counter or compartment of an authorized agent within the vicinity of the arrival hall. Buying one of the Subscriber Identity Module (or SIM) card will involve registration and subscription not only for communication services that include calling and Short Message Service (or SMS) texting, but also for moving money through the encrypted SMS and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (or USSD) platforms. These services which provide the baseline infrastructure for a wide range of different services that offer unique and innovative mobile-phone based applications and systems and rely on text and short code and often – in some ways – fall within different categories including M-Pesa, Airtel Money, Orange Money – the most popular of which is Safaricom’s (Lipa Na) M-pesa.
For all the systems, registration processes are usually free of charge, require customer-identification, and often end with the ‘Activate’ (or ‘Wezesha’ in Swahili) option and a 4-digit number (or PIN) received from the operator as confirmation. Upon this, the mobile money account is officially ‘open,’ and hard cash can be deposited and transferred through an agent into the mobile phone account as ‘mobile money.’ Alternatively, mobile transfer transactions can be made from a local bank or second or third party. Once the money is ‘in’ the mobile phone account, one can then pay all sorts of bills – including for a taxi-cab or car hire services form the airport, which like the mobile communication operators have strategically positioned counters and agents outside the arrivals terminal with personnel on standby to introduce you to the next cab or car.
In what could be a great opportunity to use the mobile money service (probably for the first time), the ‘transfer’ of ‘mobile money’ from one phone to another is likely to come with great ease given the simplicity of the step-by-step instructions for making a simple mobile payment via SMS text threads and USSD menus. The simplicity of these instructions are explained by the act that the system is designed to make transactions possible even with the most basic ‘feature phone’ or handset. One is most likely to be amazed by the speed, ease and convenience of making real-time payments transactions to the taxi or cab driver. Or even with the public transport (matatu) systems that have got designated routes (never mind that the matatu cashless fare payment system in Nairobi hit a snag although there have been attempts to revamp or reintroduce it). No withstanding, there are up to five transit, navigation and (in-bus) communication applications including DigitalMatatu, matatumap, Ma3route, Flashcast. These and similar applications are imperative for one trying to situate and orient self in an otherwise chaotic city. They provide collaborative data, maps and visuals within a city whose public transit routes can be quite inaccessible, inconsistent and inconvenient for a stranger and inhabitant alike.
With such systems, my experiences as a researcher in Nairobi have sometimes propelled a certain feeling of presence within a space of unceasing and insurmountable mobile connection, network, encounter and entanglement. Where you’re most likely than ever to tap into the rather unprecedented applications, systems and services for querying, payment, and other forms of transaction. It is always tempting to make bill payments for services or reservations at a hotel, a guest house, or restaurant for instance through ‘M-Pesa’ or ‘Airtel Money.’ Mobile payments may even seem more suitable for services and goods in malls or arcades, stores and supermarkets, and pretty much for all utility bill payments such as electricity, gas, water, television subscriptions, fuelling at petrol-stations, rent, and so on and so forth. In fact, it may almost seem plausible to simply inhabit the city with as less cash as possible if not for any other reason than security, safety and convenience.
Of course, as my research concerns urban infrastructure, mobile technologies and Nairobi, I now find increasingly, that software development, mobile-enabled infrastructural engagements, and the mobile money market are indeed key signifiers of the city’s identity. Nairobi’s unfettered innovation vivacity is not exceptional, however. The effects of the mobile age are not restricted solely to Nairobi. Nairobi only serves as a reflection of the extent to which African cities are becoming increasingly synonymous with new formations caused in part by the emergent reliance on mobile media, devices and technologies in the everyday life.
African cities in general share a colonial history and their post-colonial responses to it. They share an insurmountable presence of global institutions of modernity and urbanity, and configurations of hegemonic capitalism and market-oriented models and ideals of neoliberalism. In the same fashion, they do share a common platform as spheres of a new entrepreneurialism amidst opportunities that the mobile age provides. A new positioning where they are increasingly becoming novel sites of commodification, economic opportunity, and thriving industries that are increasingly based on the production of mobile communications technologies such as M-Pesa (in Nairobi), MTN Mobile Money (in Kampala), and Hawala (in Mogadishu).
The questions that I find myself pondering upon as a researcher with interest in cities, technologies and infrastructure concern why and how African technologies have become what they are today; and how some of these are as such that cities of the global South such as Nairobi have come to be regarded perhaps as some of the most digitized—or rather mobileized—in the world: both as hubs, nexus and junctions to some of the most critical technologies. My lessons thus far centre around the necessity to re-examine and re-imagine African cities and technologies through situated and located lens. And in this, to explicate empirically key realities, practices, identities and materialities especially those that are increasingly deemed to receive less focus in mainstream academia.
Prince Guma is an urban imaginer, rural optimist and a PhD candidate in the Graduate School for Urban Studies (URBANgrad) in Germany. His current research focuses on the centrality of mobile technologies in Nairobi and how these shape interactions between infrastructural systems, between systems and society, and thereby, the city as a sphere, nexus and junction of and for innovation. He is followed on Twitter at princeguma.