Petro Salema: innovation in technology

Orde Saunders' avatarPublished: by Orde Saunders

Petro Salema was taling about innovation in technology at Mobilism, these are my notes from his talk.

"Bend a fish while it is still wet." - Swahili Proverb

As things become more mature they become harder to change. This is exaggerated in technology systems, the more complex a system is, the harder it is to change it. When a system has parts that depend on each other it is hard to change.

The web is now developed. The software companies that emerged from the web are not selling software. When it was being developed people tried to mimic desktop on the web. Free and open became accepted and the expected. Paywalls, freemium and the like are trying to bend a fish that is already dry - the success stories have worked with user behaviour: they use software to capture attention and sell it.

You don't get technology disruption by disrupting the user - you get it by not disrupting the user. User interfaces have to work with the user. Technology disruption happens when it enables the user.

Tanzania and Kenya are now at the forefront of mobile cashless society (and in an environment where day long power cuts aren't remarkable).

  • Go to work in a rickshaw taxi, after the trip you pay using your mobile - no banks are involved.
  • To pay for a meal in the restaurant all you need is the mobile number of the restaurant.
  • Your friends can peer-to-peer pay you for their share.
  • Electricity bill...
  • Travel...

A true cashless society. Credit cards have never been a thing.


Fiat-pegged storable and transferable electronic value.

Fiat was invented by the Chinese - it's like the gold standard, it's an e-currency backed by real local currency. Started as technology to deal with financial transactions with people who don't use banks. It organically moved to people using it for peer-to-peer transactions using their mobiles. The networks recognised this and built infrastructure to deal with it. It's the biggest mobile and electronic currency in the world.

vs. Bitcoin

  • Fiat-pegged vs. Free floating
  • Identity vs. Anonymous
  • Centralised vs. Decentralised
  • Propitiatory vs. Open source
  • SMS/USSD vs. Internet
  • Local vs. Global

These aren't the only differences but they are the user interface. The first two are the biggest differences - they are what give each their essential characteristics. Bitcoin is not aligned with how most people want to use money - even if it's a superior technological achievement.

Bitcoin: incompatible with normal. Nobody is going to make a movie about paying for lunch with M-Pesa but they will about some of the stuff going on with Bitcoin.

The big features of iPhone were all well known and understood - what was new was the combination. iPhone wasn't a flying pink elephant, it was a faster horse. New but familiar.

Archetingin M-Pesa

Start with the bank. Give the money to "Super Agents" that can handle a lot of cash, they have infrastructure but are not banks. They give cash to smaller agents - this can be anyone with a mobile phone. You go to the agent and give them cash to an agent who puts the cash on your phone. If you have a phone you are in the cashless society, the majority of the population is in the peer-to-peer economy - not in the banks. In Tanzania 25% of the population had access to banking - now 40% have access to M-Pesa. 70% of the population participates in a cashless society, this is real not a research project. Mobile money agents outnumber all other financial institutions 10 to 1. (There are still walled gardens between different networks which are an opportunity.)

Accessibility, identity and security/error handling are needed to get right for it to work at all.

70% without banks - 70% with mobiles. Don't require smart phone features - piggy back on existing features and infrastructure. Make it P2P, people are also used to interacting peer-to-peer - people would buy PAYG air time for other people.

The phone number is a unique identifier and people already have the network in their contacts - don't make people have a new identifier that you have invented for yourself. Security comes from the identifier - people will make common sense judgements, they will call a new contact to check they have the right mobile number as a form of 2FA. The system will respond with the name of the person who received the payment so you can revoke in case of errors.

M-Pesa didn't work as well in South Africa because the banks caught on and put up their own systems - the fish was no longer wet.


You can't just do M-Pesa in Europe, the lessons are about technology in general. It's not about mobile banking in Africa. How do you align technology with user patterns?

Privacy is misaligned with society. For companies whose product is you and your attention they improve by making better use of their knowledge of you. The interface isn't very smooth because it jars with our expectation of society. SnapChat offers privacy as a feature.

As software and digital plays more of a part in peoples' lives we need to explore what it means to be a cultural anthropologist - not just a nerd.

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