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6/5/18 - "Mobile Payments and Youth Entrepreneurship in Kenya: A Qualitative Study" by Jenna Grzeslo

Mobile Payments and Youth Entrepreneurship in Kenya: A Qualitative Study


Jenna Grzeslo is a Ph.D. student in Mass Communications at Penn State.  She received an ARC research grant in Fall 2016.

As a student in Mass Communications, with a focus in telecommunications, my interest in mobile payments for development began with a fascination with the technology, itself. I wanted - scratch that - I needed to understand how this technology was diffusing so rapidly in emerging economies. The answer to that question was actually quite simple. Some areas without established credit and banking systems had experienced tremendous growth in mobile payment adoption. Essentially, mobile payments had leap frogged over traditional forms of banking. In a matter of years, countries, such as Kenya, had gone from being virtually unbanked to having access to basic financial services through mobile payments. What came later was an understanding of the transformative power of this technology, especially for young people.

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Mobile payments are systems that allow for the transfer of funds over mobile devices. I decided to devote my research to an area where mobile payments had already taken off. This lead me to Kenya. In Kenya, the dominant mobile payment platform is M-Pesa, “Pesa” being the Swahili word for money. In Image 1, the M-Pesa menu on a feature phone is presented.


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At the same time, Kenya is unique in that it has a significant and vibrant youth population. A 2017 article in Entrepreneur magazine suggests that Millennial entrepreneurship in the U.S. is down, while Millennial entrepreneurship in emerging markets, like Kenya, is thriving (Piang, 2017). Piang (2017) also suggests that there is a lack of innovation in the U.S. market versus ripe conditions for innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging markets. 

This is important because the ILO (2018) estimates that there are 67 million unemployed young people across the globe, which is approximately 13.1 percent of the youth population. If we look at just Kenya, the youth unemployment rate is around 17%. Therefore, entrepreneurship allows young people to create opportunities for themselves where opportunities might not otherwise exist. 

Based on the reasoning outlined above, I became interested in the use of mobile payments by youth entrepreneurs in Kenya. After a thorough review of the literature, I derived research questions that focused on the adoption and continued use of M-Pesa. 

In order to address the research questions, I conducted semi-structured interviews with young entrepreneurs (age 18-35) in Nairobi, Kenya. In total, 30 entrepreneurs were interviewed for the study. The sample consists of an even split of 15 women and men. Their ventures span from not-for-profit organizations to brick and mortar shops to tech startups. Many of the participants own small shops, and Image 3 presents an example of a clothing shop in a youth-centered neighborhood in Nairobi.


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I utilized a combination of open and closed thematic coding in order to interpret the rich qualitative data that emerged from the interviews. Although there was variation in the backgrounds and operations of the entrepreneurs in the sample, many themes emerged from the data.

While not a requirement for recruitment, all of the participants interviewed for the study have not only adopted M-Pesa, but they also use it regularly. It is not only a part of their business operations, but it is often a necessity. Some cited that they would lose business if they didn’t use M-Pesa. Themes also emerged around the importance of strong social ties, such as family, and the transfer of funds from urban to rural areas using M-Pesa.

While M-Pesa creates opportunities for young entrepreneurs to save and transfer funds, they still face a host of challenges that require resources beyond a mobile payment platform. Participants spoke of these challenges as barriers preventing them from launching and/or growing their businesses. Resources such as seed funding, entrepreneurship training, and ongoing access to larger lines of credit may all aid in the growth of youth entrepreneurship in Kenya.

In conclusion, I am currently a Research Fellow at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. This year, we are celebrating the 70th Anniversary for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the right to education and the right to work are included. Furthermore, the UN’s 8th Sustainable Development Goal suggests that we must promote economic growth and access to decent work. As such, there is a challenge of creating good jobs for young people – jobs that youth are attracted to, find empowering, and will not be eliminated in the short term. This is what we should strive for, and empirical research can help inform the pathways to getting to that end goal.

I would like to express my gratitude to the Africana Research Center and the Graduate School for funding this project. Without their support, this project would not have been possible.  


International Labor Organization. (2018). Youth employment. Retrieved from

Piang, J. (2017, Sept. 6). Entrepreneurship and Millennials Are Thriving in Emerging Markets. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from