How do we protect mobile money agents from COVID-19 as we turn to them for digital finance?

As we grapple with the new reality — social distancing, using cashless transactions, and the curfew imposed by the Kenyan government — it is in these uncertain times that we rush to load our mobile money wallets at our local mobile money agent shop. The World Health Organization has flagged cash transfers from one person to another as one of the ways that COVID-19 could easily spread rapidly. It is thus understandable that as we heed the call to turn to cashless transfers, we turn to our local Mpesa shop towards reducing the use of physical cash.

Unsurprisingly, we expect mobile money agents to remain operational and continue catering to our needs. The agents are central to our economy and to enabling the nation to turn to cashless transactions, but as consumers what can we do to ensure that agents are also protected?

For the week, East Africa’s largest Mobile Network Operator, Safaricom, has supported the uptake of cashless transactions by waiving charges on person-to-person transfers for transactions worth KSh 1,000 and below for the next three months. While transactions below KSh 100 have enjoyed a similar waiver for a longer period, transactions ranging between Ksh 100 and Ksh 1,000 have attracted a transaction fee ranging between KSh 11 and KSh 15. In talks with the Central Bank of Kenya, this waiver has been targeted to reduce the need for physical cash transfers from one person to another as a means of stemming the spread of COVID-19. Similarly, banks in the Kenyan economy have followed suit in a similar fashion to waive bank to mobile money wallet and vice versa transfer charges.

Nearly all bank accounts in Kenya have deposits of less than KSh 1 million, Central Bank of Kenya revealed that 99.3 percent of bank accounts in Kenya have deposits of less than KSh 1 million. Only 0.7 percent of accounts have deposits of more than KSh 1 million. 97 percent of bank accounts in Kenya have less than KSh 100,000. The CBK data also offers a sneak peek at Kenya’s growing income inequality problem where wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a small segment of the population.

More cash needs to be digitized, especially by low income earners and Kenyans at the bottom of the pyramid, and will likely be done through agents.

“Mobile money agents have 7x more reach than ATMs and 20x more reach than bank branches”

As we appreciate and rely on mobile money agents, the question remains, how can we protect our local agents in these uncertain times? Below I share four ideas on how I believe we can achieve this:

1.Wash your hands thoroughly before giving your agent your physical cash.

While there are several measures recommended by the World Health Organization in protecting yourself from COVID-19 and curbing the spread to other people. One of the most important one is regular and safe hand hygiene. Below is a step-by-step guide to good hand-washing practices:

i. The process should take between 20 to 30 seconds.

ii. First, wet your hand in their entirety with water.

iii. Apply soap and ensure the hands are entirely covered.

iv. Rub your palms thoroughly together.

v. Put your right palm over your left hands, interlace the fingers taking time on each finger. Do the same with the left palm over your right hand.

vi. Interlace your fingers with palm to palm.

vii. Put the back of your fingers facing the opposing palm, and don’t forget the nails too.

viii. Use rotational rubbing for both thumbs.

ix. Rotational rubbing, backwards and forwards with clasped fingers of right hand in left palm and vice versa.

x. Rinse your hands thoroughly with water.

xi. Once dry, your hands are safe.

2.Keep safe distance as your agent caters to your deposit or withdrawal needs.

Maintain a reasonable distance from your agent by increasing the physical space. Staying at least six feet away from your agent lessens your chances of catching or spreading COVID-19. We all are working our best to ensure that we are adequately prepared to end this pandemic, so maintain your social distance at all times.

3.Don’t touch the agent’s booth, wood frame or metal bars.

More and more people are staying indoors to avoid contact with either people or surfaces potentially infected by COVID-19. But since we have established that we need to visit our local agents to get access to digital finance, avoid at all cost touching the agent’s booth, wood frame, or metal bars. There is a good reason for this, a study has shown that COVID-19 can last on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to twenty-four hours, and on steel and plastic for up to seventy-two hours. Clearly, touching any surface unnecessarily should be avoided at all cost.

4.Don’t take longer than necessary at the agent shop.

Avoiding crowds is a sure way to maintain social distancing. As different people also rely on your preferred agent for deposit and withdrawal needs, taking long periods at your agent’s shop will only lead to more people crowding at that location. Once the agent has completed your transaction and now that you are well-equipped with digital finance, go home and order for your groceries from the comfort of your home.

Let us follow the simple guidelines as this will aid in stemming the spread of COVID-19 and we will for sure win the fight together.

Paul Muriithi — Chief Information Officer at PesaKit.

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