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However, Maurer says, all the most important ingredients are present in Afghanistan. The country has just four banks and four telecom providers, which made the system easy to set up. “If you have a few players, put them in the room together, and they can make it happen,” he says .

Crucial to M-Paisa’s success will be “agent networks”—places where people can put cash into the system and draw it out again, says Tavneet Suri, an economist at MIT who has been studying the adoption and impact of M-PESA in Kenya. Setting their agent network up early in the game was one of the Kenyan M-PESA’s strengths, she says. “I think a lot of their success has been in placing their agent network up and running,” Suri says. “And it can’t be just in the city. [The agents] have to be everywhere.”

But Suri notes that other mobile payment systems modeled on M-PESA in Pakistan and Tanzania have grown more slowly. “Everyone’s trying to find the magic that makes this work,” says Maurer. “It could be that there isn’t any magic—that Kenya’s the anomaly and the rest is just a slow slog. It took 4,000 years to develop banking institutions, and we’re all impatient when this system’s in its fourth year.”

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Credit: Jan Chipchase

Tagged: Computing, mobile, communication, developing countries, banking, payments systems, Afghanistan

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