Kenya’s Central Bank Governor Njuguna Ndung’u recently urged the country’s mobile money transfer (MMT) operators to reduce their transaction fees. According to the Governor, “There is no way one can send 50 Shilling at 35 Shillings”. This translates into a seemingly exorbitant 70 percent fee for a small transaction equivalent to less than $1. Safaricom, the telecom operator that offers M-Pesa service (a highly successful Kenyan venture with more than 13 million clients), and other Kenyan MMT operators, however, maintained that the services they provide represent value for money. So are mobile money transfer costs too high?
Before we answer this question, it’s worth pointing out that even if mobile money transfer costs are fixed, average costs expressed as a share of the amount sent can rise if the average size of transactions falls. That is what happened with M-Pesa. M-Pesa charges a fixed fee per transaction within pre-specified fee brackets (see tariff poster). As the use of M-Pesa spread, Kenyans started using it for smaller and smaller transactions. The average amount sent through M-Pesa declined from the equivalent of about $50 in March 2007 to less than $30 by March 2009. The fees charged by M-Pesa, including withdrawal charges, expressed as a share of the average amount, rose correspondingly until mid-2008 (see chart). Because the average transaction size fell to the lowest fixed fee bracket in mid-2008, there was a downward jump in the fee. Then average costs rose again up until March 2009.