ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
People in Kenya see this kind of commercial a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).
SHAPIRO: They're singing, things are now modern. The jingle is for a new type of banking service run entirely through a customer's mobile phone. They send and receive money with a simple text. The service was launched nine years ago. And today, almost every household in Kenya uses it.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Prior to that, there were some Kenyans who didn't have access to traditional banks. Mobile banking is a game changer. And a study published in the journal Science says there could be an extra benefit for poor customers. Mobile banking could lift people out of poverty. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Kenya's mobile banking service is called M-PESA, and 32-year-old Geoffrey Ombati says it changed his life.
GEOFFREY OMBATI: I grew up in a rural area.
AIZENMAN: There weren't any banks nearby, so he never had an account. He was making a tiny bit of money working in the general store of his village. But as soon as he'd get the cash in his pocket, he'd end up frittering it away - stuff like picking up sweets for his kids on his way home from work - couldn't help it.
OMBATI: I can't resist, yes.
AIZENMAN: But once he started uploading his wages directly to his M-PESA savings account, it created a sort of psychological barrier.
OMBATI: In a way, it was hindering me from accessing it easily.
AIZENMAN: You're protecting yourself against yourself (laughter).
OMBATI: (Laughter) I'm protecting my money against myself.
AIZENMAN: All over Kenya, people were noticing effects like this. It caught the attention of a Kenyan-born economist at MIT named Tavneet Suri. She focuses on poverty issues. And the sudden expansion of mobile banking made her wonder.
TAVNEET SURI: Is this like a new toy for people or, does it actually fundamentally change their lives? Does it solve poverty?
AIZENMAN: And so Suri set up an experiment. While the mobile phone company was still rolling out M-PESA across Kenya, Suri and her collaborator, Georgetown University economist William Jack, started a multiyear series of surveys to track people's finances essentially to see how mobile banking was affecting people's economic well-being over the long term. When the results came in...
SURI: I was blown away.
AIZENMAN: It turns out mobile banking made a big dent in poverty. The impact was particularly strong for households led by women. The ones that got access to M-PESA set aside 22 percent more in savings, and they bought a lot more basic goods.
What's more, among the poorest families - those who'd been living on less than a $1.25 a day - nearly 1 in 10 got enough of a boost to lift them out of that extreme poverty. Suri says that's a better track record than a lot of aid programs.
SURI: And we didn't give them anything, right? We just gave them an app.
AIZENMAN: She says more research is needed to determine if this works in other countries and what's driving it. Maybe mobile banking lets people be more entrepreneurial by making it easier to run a business. Maybe they're more willing to take risks because they've got more of a safety net. In a pinch, relatives far away can send you cash now. Or maybe it comes down to putting away more money, which brings us back to Geoffrey Ombati.
OMBATI: Yeah, I actually managed to save a lot of money.
AIZENMAN: About $215 - he used it to move to Kenya's capital Nairobi where he's found better paying work in construction. He bought two goats for his wife to raise back in the village. Now he's saving for the next step - cows.
OMBATI: I'm looking at buying two cows. I want to start selling milk because there is a short supply of milk in our area.
AIZENMAN: And maybe one day, he says, I'll save enough to go to college. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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