Living

A farmer and a cowherd join cellular revolution

NTULELE, Kenya — In Ntulele, a trading post two hours outside Kenya's capital, Nairobi, the nearest bank is 15 miles away, a half-day's walk for most. On a busy market day recently, a small, cement-block outlet of M-Pesa, a cellular money-transfer service, processed transfers for a steady parade of Kenyans: neatly dressed teachers, a construction worker in grimy overalls, farmers who'd walked for hours and Masai tribesmen with traditional beads ringing their wrists.

Around midafternoon, Malit Kuronoi, a tall, copper-skinned farmer, walked in with a few wrinkled bills. Like two-thirds of Kenyans, he's never had a bank account, but his sister-in-law, a social worker named Charity, convinced him to sign up for a free M-Pesa account last year, and usually accompanies him when he goes to send or receive cash.

"He is still not very sure" the service works, she said, laughing.

Kuronoi's cowherd had asked for 3,000 shillings, about $40, to look after his 100 head of cattle and 200 sheep. Kuronoi handed the money to an agent, who jotted down Kuronoi's name and phone number in a thick notebook and tapped a few keys on her phone.

Kuronoi's phone jingled with a text message: The transaction was complete. It took about two minutes.

Outside, Kuronoi's phone jingled again. It was the cowherd calling from 250 miles away. "The money is here," he said. "But why didn't you bring it yourself?"

Kuronoi hung up and grinned. "Why would I travel that long distance?" he said. "I can stay here and plant my crops."

When Kuronoi used to make the four-day journey to see his cattle, the bus fare was about $50 — more than he was delivering. His sister-in-law used to travel 100 miles by minibus every few months to pay the fees at her child's boarding school in the western Rift Valley, along a road that's notorious for bandits.

"With M-Pesa we have security. We know the money will get there safely," Charity Kuronoi said.

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