Comparative Advantage: When the Unbanked Self-Organize

Comparative Advantage, a new short film by Tomer Kantor (director of Ulterior States), shows there are people in the world that, instead of using the legacy banking system, are embracing their financial sovereignty using new technology. There have been local screenings of the film all over the world, including in London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Nairobi, and Tel Aviv. Here’s a quick look at how the film explores the history of mobile money (M-Pesa) in Kenya and the use of cryptocurrency in the informal economy there.

Also Read: President Trump’s First Crypto Move? Executive Order on Fraud Crimes

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Inside a Leading Digital Economy

When we think of technology, we tend think of it as heading in one direction: forward. It advances, growing ever more sophisticated. Yet this isn’t always so.

Take Kenya, for instance. Few realise that it’s one of the world’s most advanced digital economies. Years before Google Pay and ApplePay were common in the U.S. and U.K., Kenyans were already paying for goods and services via handsets. This is what Tomer Kantor explores in Comparative Advantage. How did Kenya become a leading digital economy?

In 2007, M-Pesa mobile money launched. Today, 75 percent of Kenyan adults use it in daily life to pay for anything from cabs to groceries. Yet this has been achieved using low-powered handsets and 2G networks. It may not seem like much of a technological advancement, but it’s a huge lateral leap in the creative application of technology.

An M-Pesa kiosk.

Tomer’s documentary also reveals another surprising reason for the popularity of mobile and digital payments in Kenya: endemic corruption in the banking industry. With the arrival of M-Pesa, anyone with a mobile phone could store digital money securely and make payments digitally. The need for a bank account — and the risk of losing one’s savings — was reduced.

In time, this dynamic lead Kenyans to embrace bitcoin, as Tomer found when he attended Kenya’s first Bitcoin meet-up in 2014.

The Doc’s Dramatis Personae

Comparative Advantage introduces us to Kenyans including Michael, George and Eugene, ordinary people with extraordinary passions for cryptocurrency. Through them, we see how mobile money and cryptocurrencies are enhancing one of the country’s oldest traditions — saving circles, known locally as Chamas.

These table banking societies let local communities come together, save, invest, and lend money to stimulate entrepreneurship and support infrastructure. Taxi driver Robert and Rahab, a clothes merchant, started their businesses with funds borrowed from their local Chama.

They tell their stories in their own words, which is the strength of this beautifully-shot documentary. No narrator tells us what we should think or what conclusions we should draw: ordinary Kenyans invite the viewer into their lives to share their experiences, hopes, and dreams.

We also meet veteran cryptographer Ian Grigg, whose startup Chamapesa is working with Chamas. The app he’s developing, Chamapesa, aims to make Chamas even more secure by digitizing and streamlining the accounting process. The goal isn’t to change this centuries-old tradition, but to improve it.

Comparative Advantage is a thoughtful insight into how ordinary Kenyans have used technology to improve their lives, manage their finances, and help solve universal problems: lessons to walk away with for anyone who watches this film.

What’s your take? How will the digital revolution continue to play out in Africa? Sound off in the comments below. 


Images via Comparative Advantage

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