Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Will we ever know who invented MPesa?

Quite frequently, someone will come to our IP Clinic claiming to have invented MPesa, the first widespread mobile money transfer system. Some even bring evidence supporting their claim. We've heard quite a number of stories - it was invented by a student at the University of Nairobi, or by a student in Nigeria, or by this or that entrepreneur, or by Vodafone in Germany (and merely tested in Kenya due to lack of regulations), etc.  Some are upset that their IP was 'stolen' but others merely want recognition for their 'invention.'

The reality, if the Wikipedia page can be trusted, seems quite a bit more complicated - many people and entities appear to be involved.

While searching for something else, though, this blogger came across this US patent application, which describes an "electronic purse" that seems suspiciously a lot like MPesa. The priority date is 2003. It's not exactly the same, but clearly people were thinking about this technology over a decade ago and at least three years before MPesa was launched.

Many people have said that MPesa was/is an example that supports software patents - had it been patented, the theory goes, it would be very easy to identify the true inventor and that person/entity would be making tons of money. This blogger believes the opposite is more accurate - had it been patented, there wouldn't be competitor services in Kenya (there are currently several), quality and service would suffer, and prices would be higher. Considering that a major reason for MPesa was to help the "unbanked", such a result would be quite unfortunate.
Lion share (source here)

Some would argue, however (and this blogger would probably agree), that even without patent protection, MPesa's lion-share of the industry effectively results in the negative outcomes mentioned above. 

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