Tag Archives: M-PESA

Saved by a bamba 50!

I made it a habit a few months ago to always be carrying an unscratched Bamba 50. Lots of people thought it was hilarious, not understanding why I didn’t just redeem them right when I bought them. There are many reasons, but yesterday, it was nothing other than an unused Bamba 50 which saved the day! First, a little background…

Scratch cards in Kenya

In Kenyan street Swahili “kubamba” means “to jazz”, as in, to make excited (or something). Most Kenyan cell phones work on a pre-paid basis; you buy these little cards, scratch to reveal the unique twelve-digit code, and then enter it in your phone to redeem the face value of the card. Depending on the cell phone provider, time of the day, or person you’re calling, 50 Kenyan shillings (about 50 US cents) can get you anywhere from 20 – 50 minutes of talking time.


Anyways, so yesterday I had decided I wanted to bake some brownies (with which to eat away my sorrows). Because I had used all the chocolate powder making OMG brownies last week, I decided to pass through Sarit Centre on the way home from work. While all I really needed was chocolate powder, I bought a few extra things since I was in the super market anyways. When it came time to pay for my parking I was five shillings short. I started to consider my options…

I looked in the car, no coins lying around. ATM card: at home. M-PESA wasn’t working on my stupid phone for some reason, so I couldn’t use the ATM with that either. Short of hanging around and asking random people for five bob, or walking all the way home to rummage through my coin pile, I was out of options!

… then I remembered the Bamba 50 in my pocket; scratched, but unused! I went and struck a deal with the parking meter lady, giving her my 50-shilling scratch card in exchange for the five bob I needed to pay for my parking. She was stoked because she cleaned up on the deal (45 free shillings); I was stoked because I could get my car out of the parking lot without having bum around asking for change from complete strangers! Phew, how’s that for thinking on your feet?

Kenyan con men take to the air waves!

Some guy called me last week and told me that he had accidentally sent me money on M-PESA, and could I please send it back. I told him that no, I hadn’t noticed any text messages, but that I would look. “Tafadhali, ndugu yangu, niangalilie” (please, my brother, look for me). As I had just been on the phone before he called, I hadn’t seen that there was, in fact, an SMS confirmation of an M-PESA transaction. I gave him a call back and told him that I’d return the money to him right away.

BC8JT386 Confirmed you have received Ksh 1,230 from JAMES KORIR on6/4/11 at 5:40 pm your new M-PESA balance is Ksh2,150

The M-PESA transaction confirmation SMS from “James Korir”…

M-PESA is Safaricom’s mobile banking platform. It’s kinda like a bank account that runs on your phone… as long as you have your phone and your PIN you can send or receive money extremely flexibly. The M-PESA application is embedded into your GSM SIM card using what’s called the “SIM Toolkit.” That means the M-PESA functionality can move from phone to phone, without having to be “installed.”

Android confusion…

CyanogenMod 7 logoThat model works well for most people, but because I always like to live on the edge my Android-powered Samsung Galaxy S doesn’t support the SIM Toolkit. The stock firmware does, but I’ve replaced Samsung’s boring software with CyanogenMod, a fork of the Android Open Source Project’s public Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” source code. Since it’s a known issue I always have to pop my SIM card into a crappy $20 Nokia phone whenever I want to use M-PESA.

Right as I was about to press the “Ok” confirmation to send the money back, the guy CALLS ME. Because this phone doesn’t have any sophisticated multitasking I freak out and cancel the call, only to find that my M-PESA dialog has disappeared. I navigated to the M-PESA application again but it refused to launch. Assuming that the transaction hasn’t gone through, I reboot my phone and try again. Surprise: “not enough funds to complete transaction!”

Now I’m really freaking out. “Stupid Android,” I think to myself; 1,230 shillings ($15) has just disappeared from my account and I still have to send this guy’s money back. Money I apparently DON’T have! In a moment of what appears to have been brilliance, I call Safaricom’s free customer service line to explain this bizarre scenario. I don’t bother explaining that I’m running some crazy operating system on my phone, and just stick to the facts.

Safaricom lady: “Sir, who sent the message? Did it say “M-PESA” at the top?
Me: “No.

And that’s when the light bulb turned on, this guy is a con man. Crap. How embarrassing. If I hadn’t have been so broke I would have gladly sent this guy “his” money and never thought twice about it!

Moral of of the story…

Stay sharp, people! M-PESA SMSes will always be from “M-PESA!” Con men rely on confusion and take advantage of nice guys like you and me.

In retrospect, the confirmation SMS was close to the “real thing,” but far from perfect. It’s crystal clear now, but in the heat of the moment I admit I didn’t even notice the flaws in grammar and punctuation! For the record, I also blame the preoccupation with SIM swapping and crappy Nokia phones! I’m not always so daft…