KENYA: Safaricom Pilots Social Messaging App Bonga to Integrate with M-Pesa

Safaricom, Kenya's largest telecommunications company, is venturing into the application business with a new social messaging app linked to its mobile money platform. The company announced on Tuesday that it is piloting the app, named Bonga, which means "chat" in Kiswahili. This app aims to transform its popular financial services platform, M-Pesa, into a multifaceted social network.

Bonga will be integrated with M-Pesa, which boasts nearly 28 million users, allowing them to communicate beyond financial transactions. The app is designed to leverage the relationship between conversations and transactions, particularly payments. "It's one thing to share information with somebody; it's another thing to make a payment, to send money to somebody," said Kamal Bhattacharya, Safaricom's chief innovation officer, in a telephone interview.

The app will enable M-Pesa users to message each other in three distinct ways: user-to-user, user-to-business, and through fundraising in "social groups" akin to WhatsApp's group function. This concept mirrors China's WeChat, where users can perform various tasks, from payments to ride-hailing, without leaving the platform. Bonga is the first product from Safaricom's innovation incubator, Alpha.

Bhattacharya, who joined Safaricom in 2017 after establishing IBM's research lab in Africa, emphasized that Bonga will feature end-to-end encryption. "We cannot read the messages, we cannot keep the messages," he stated.

Kenya currently lacks data privacy laws, but Safaricom assures users of their privacy. The company is 35 percent owned by the South African group Vodacom and 5 percent by Vodacom's major shareholder Vodafone. With close to 30 million users, Safaricom holds a 70 percent market share of Kenya's mobile phone subscribers.

The launch of Bonga is part of Safaricom's strategy to diversify its revenue streams beyond traditional services like voice calls, mobile money, and text messages. Last year, the company introduced Masoko, an e-commerce platform. In the first half of 2017, Safaricom reported a 16 percent rise in mobile money revenue, while revenue from phone calls increased by just 4 percent.

"Our future is to become a platform that enables business in Kenya as well as our consumers to do their work in a different way," Bhattacharya said. "Messenger platforms are the most popular apps, the most popular approach on the internet today to bring people together."