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Electronic payments must benefit lowest level workers

Monday, December 19, 2011 - 00:00 -- BY JOEL PATENAUDE
A herd of Impala antelopes run in front of a tourist vehicle on the plains of the Masai Mara game reserve
BOOMING BUSINESS: Tourists flock to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve every day.

The Narok County Council’s recent layoff of 100 of its employees after
they protested the introduction of an electronic revenue collection
system at the Maasai Mara Reserve is the wrong approach. The
evidence shows that if electronic payments are to work there have to be
incentives for all stakeholders, including those at the lowest levels,
to embrace them.

The council leaders’ punitive actions come
amid accusations of years of theft which they say e-ticketing will put a
stop to. These leaders’ indignation at their employees “rampant
corruption" stems from the assumption that if they had been their
employees’ shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken
action, not stolen and influenced their fellow workers to do likewise.

There
is ample evidence, however, that stolen cash was shared at all levels;
the clerks were merely collectors for bosses who condoned the activity,
which they felt pressure to continue. The council employees’ concern,
which seems shared by some in the community, it that this new electronic
system is equally corrupt and designed to allow higher-ups to bypass
them and pocket more for themselves. They point to the County Council’s
10-year contract with Equity Bank to provide the service for a 1.7% fee
(of an estimated Kshs 1.5 Billion) and are suspicious.

I
lived in Kenya from 1982-1984, first as a teacher in Ukambani and later
attached to a USAID-funded project that worked with local governments. I
had a desk in Kisumu at the provincial office of the Ministry of Local
Government. I commuted to several small towns in Western and Nyanza
provinces and saw first-hand the good and the bad. One council executive
had not taken a vacation in 13 years. When finally forced on leave, a
substitute from the Ministry took over and uncovered duplicate sets of
books and a long history of embezzlement.

I now work with an
e-payments company in west Africa and understand the suspicions
associated with new payment technologies. The benefits of electronic
money, which far outweigh the risks, need to be understood and felt by
all stakeholders. Simply caning those who raise questions and telling
them to follow orders or be fired does no good to long-term prospects.

In
addition to introducing efficiencies impossible with cash handling, two
of the best attributes of these systems are tracking (i.e. the money
can be followed) and transparency (anyone with access to the information
can follow these tracks).

Equity Bank is already touting the
success of its Narok pilot, claiming a two-fold increase in revenues
even before the system is fully deployed. As the saying goes “a new
broom sweeps cleaner” and certainly a new system, closely monitored in
pilot, should perform well. Delivering high performance levels over the
long term is more challenging and requires an ongoing commitment, not
only from Equity Bank but even more so from the County Council as the
story does not end with healthy bank balances. The community must
benefit from this newly-collected wealth.

Here are a few ideas.

  • Community
    acceptance should begin with public meetings and the appointment of
    community ombudsmen who will be provided with access to observe the
    tracked funds
  • The County Council’s accounting system should
    be upgraded and processes put in place to, at a minimum, allow one to
    reconcile these funds with real-time bank balances. Two sets of books
    must be a thing of the past and, again, community ombudsmen should be
    given access.
  • Revenue figures should be made very broadly available, perhaps via free SMS subscription to anyone interested.
  • Many
    of the furloughed employees should be welcomed back and given the
    opportunity to participate fully in a newly-restructured organization.
    The efficiencies associated with the new collection system should
    eliminate some clerk positions and allow the creation of new positions,
    hopefully with greater responsibilities, higher official pay and the
    possibility of more interesting work.
  • Equity Bank should get
    specific on the recent claims of Chairman James Mwangi that their
    contract will bring the Council added benefit from a number of systems
    the bank has in place “including our branchless networks and many
    others.” These specifics should emphasize decentralized benefits to
    employees and community members, including opportunities for
    entrepreneurship, and be introduced quickly.In this case
    there should be more than promises, there should be immediate and
    visible funded projects that benefit the broader community. One must
    prime the pump of community support. One idea: given the 10 year
    duration of the Equity Bank contract, it may be possible to explore
    monetization of some portion of the future revenue stream to fund
    immediate community projects. Private note sales have been used by
    investors to lease infrastructure in the USA, including public parking
    and highways. In addition to immediate windfalls, these arrangements
    transfer the risk of any future drops in revenue to the concessionaire.
    This is only one option, and these USA examples have been criticized,
    but there seems at least the possibility of a leapfrog approach, unique
    to Kenya, that might be both modest and transparent and capture some of
    the net present value of this revenue stream to jumpstart development
    and make converts of the doubtful.

It is too easy to place
blame for corruption on the clerks and toll takers, effectively wrap
them in electronic straightjackets and say “job done”. Most people know
that the big money is stolen out of public view. So as payments migrate
from small sums of cash to billion-shilling contracts, suspicions must
be seen as normal and expected, and directly addressed

As
electronic payments become more prevalent, not only in Kenya but
throughout Africa, those at the lowest levels can benefit greatly. But
initially these benefits seem vague while costs seem clear, so they
protest. They see the higher-ups, who control the accounts into which
these e-monies flow, retaining opportunities to enrich themselves.

Transparent processes combined with immediate benefits and reconfigured
higher-value work will go a long way toward ensuring technological
adoption and to placing Kenya (and the Narok County Council) at the
forefront. Without a benefit to all stakeholders, these high-tech
solutions will likely suffer ongoing suspicion and be subject to
low-tech sabotage.