Cell phone credit shortage in Kenya

When Kenyans want to get something done, the first thing they reach for is a mobile phone. �Mobile phones in Kenya, that's the #1 technology,� this man is a blogger based in Nairobi, �it's basically one in every two people has a phone in their pocket.� And mobile phones in Kenya are for more than just calls. Kenya's cell phone service providers allow people to do banking via their headsets. For example, you can pay for a taxi by sending money from your mobile phone banking account to your taxi driver. But you can't do any of this if you're out of air time on your phone. You see, the vast majority of Kenyans don't have a monthly plan for their phones, instead they buy pre-paid cards. Normally finding a card seller isn't a problem: kiosks, small shops, even bars sell the cards. But when violence flared up, those shops closed, many people were too afraid to leave their houses. This woman is from an area especially hard hit by the violence, �Everything is closed, everything ground to a standstill. So the places you would walk to get phone credits were closed. So what happened is, credits became so scarce that I went to one of the few open kiosks and they told me that if somebody had to buy 100 shillings of credit I would have to pay him 200 shillings.� Face with this kind of price gouging, that woman turned to a web-based service. The service allows Kenyans inside and outside the country to purchase and send cell phone air time to fellow Kenyans. You have to pay a small fee but she says the ability to buy and share cell phone credit is worth it, �I was able to send it out to my family or my friends who were stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no way to communicate.� In fact, cell phone credit has become a kind of currency in Kenya of late. This man can explain why. He's a web strategist in the Lithuanian capitol, Vilnius. But he has a lot of friends and colleagues in Kenya. He heard from them right away when the violence began, �Some had been robbed, some were without food and some were surrounded in the slums by enemy tribes. And some had friends who needed help and so we started contacting and reassuring all these people and sending money through Western Union.� But most of the places to collect that money were closed. So instead he started a web based effort called Pyramid of Peace. Anyone can visit the site and donate money. That money will then be used to purchase cell phone credit for Kenyans. It's already working: Kenyans have started trading that donated air time for food, medicine, even transport. The Vilnius man relates the story of one Kenyan man and his family, �his family had been traveling and then they ran out of food and they sent an email saying, all we're eating is water now and putting sugar in it and this is the last of the food we have for our children. So then we organized for some credit to be sent to him and three days later he wrote and said he was able to exchange it for food because the phone credits are actually worth more than cash. So you give it to the store owner, some minutes, and he'll give you some food.� He says his experience has convinced him that all countries could learn from what's going on in Kenya right now. imagine he says how valuable cell phone credit might be for you if a crisis hit your community.

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