Kenya’s mobile banking Apps’ downtime crisis

There is a biting crisis in Kenya that pinches like a sore cuticle, very small yet ignoble, unchecked mobile banking application downtimes. It is striking at our convenience and often when we are most desperate when we have no alternatives and the recipients are impatiently waiting.

Kenyans do not like to be slighted when they have money in their bank accounts but cannot access it due to twisted reasons. Mr Justice Nicholas Ombija even took KCB Bank to his workplace literally to report the lender for failure to check off his account at the Inter-Continental and Nakumatt Ukay in Westlands, Nairobi, on April 19 and May 3rd and 4th, 2008.

Fast forward to today’s era of mobile phones, every so often, one finds that their money gets stuck somewhere when one is on their last leg, or on the hook of time and they just can’t have these banking apps to do their thing.

James Wambua says he no longer uses his online banking app: I&M On The Go Personal. And all this started over 10 months ago when he happened to forget his passcode after some weeks of inactivity.

He says all his attempts to reset the password and restart enjoying the app services proved futile and his correspondence with the bank never yielded anything useful.

“We request you to try again but first uninstall and reinstall the App, customer care reps at I&M Bank advised. But I tried everything, even resetting the logins via my laptop, where the bank systems required I undertake the app login system reset in under 3 minutes. Even when I keyed in the fresh details in under a minute, the system seemed configured by default to just tell me: ‘You took too long to log in. Log in process starting from beginning,’ the bank told him whatever that means”, he said.

Exhausted after multiple failed attempts, even with the bank call centre staff on the line, he threw in the towel. He said that later when he sought to withdraw cash via a personal cheque, a teller at his local branch wondered why he wasn’t using their app!

“Don’t tell me about that app. I am tired with it,” he said, thinking this was enough to dismiss the teller. But the cheerful bank staff felt she could help, and immediately tried to intervene only for her efforts to yield nothing.

Embarrassed by the turn of events, the teller attempted to absolve the bank, telling Wambua the challenge is because they have rolled out a new version of the app. But he countered, informing him he had installed their latest version of the app and still lost count of the times he has reached out to their call centre seeking assistance without success.

To his utter shock, the teller appeared to acknowledge they have been having challenges all along with the app and seemingly he could not do much about his case. Wambua says he has never the app again ever since.

Read also: Safaricom, banks deploy tool to fight SIM-swap scams

For Nelly Monyangi, Cooperative Bank was her first bank account right after college and you have to understand the excitement you feel when you open that first account; it is the freedom to have that small black card in your purse.

But the excitement of using that cool black card was short-lived given she only had access to two automatic teller machines, coming from a small town which prompted her to switch to a mobile banking app.

Signing up was the easy part, with a simple click of the finger she could transfer her money to M-PESA and transact or even track her account balance.

But then imagine the disappointment when she walked into the supermarket to shop for her parents on her way home and the App kept returning an error message at the point of making her payment.

“The frustration of continuously trying to input your password and the only response you get is your account name/number is not recognized. That’s an experience that can drive anyone really mad. To make it worse the USSD code only works if you have airtime. The inconvenience is an understatement. At that moment, I knew I had to switch banks,” she said.

Leonida Owaga had her reckoning with her chama members when Equity Bank App decided to give her one for the chin. She normally gets paid her monthly salary via a cheque, which means it takes one or two days to reflect on her account. Her chama has set a collections deadline on the fifth of every month.

On her moment of reckoning she was paid on the 3rd of the month, and the money reflected on her account on chama’s deadline day.  She opened her banking app to check her account that morning and was relieved that she could send her contribution on time and will not have to explain all this cheque business to someone who truly is not too concerned.

“So, as any Kenyan, I gave her (chama contact) a call. ‘Nitume kwa hii number?’ I asked and she confirmed. I opened my Equity mobile banking app, sent the money, and waited for the confirmation message. Some time goes by and nothing. I refresh my app and notice the deduction was made, but still no confirmation message. Finally giving in to the thought that it must be my phone with the problem, I called my chama member and asked if she received the money since I am yet to receive confirmation on my end. She says she has not received anything so far. I went into panic,” she explained.

After about an hour, her chama member calls her again claiming to have an emergency and her contribution was all she was waiting for. At this point, Leonida explains to her again the bind the app has left her in.

“I must have looked like a total fraud; we both know it. Unfortunately, I do not have any extra cash on my M-PESA and I’m not about to risk using the app again. Another hour goes by and this time she sends a message to our WhatsApp group chat. ‘I’ve received from everyone except Leonida’. Wooow, the betrayal. I couldn’t believe she would make me explain my mobile banking problems to the whole group, and look like a fraud twice,” she says.

For many people, the idea that money magically travels from a text message on their mobile phones into a text message of their loved ones is a good enough answer.

But for people like Dr Patrick Njoroge, this ‘trust’ which he describes as; a payer having the assurance that a payment will promptly and securely reach the intended payee is the true currency.

He says in the National Payment Strategy 2022-2025 no matter how best the experience in terms of efficiency, technology integration, and real-time receipt of value if technology cannot be trusted, its ability to support the economy is significantly impaired.

As a regulator, he expects banks to do everything in their power to ensure payment will reach the intended beneficiary on time, with next-to-zero chance for failure. Most often than not, they do not.

CBK says customers lack adequate assurances that payments will reach the intended recipients at the right time, thereby reducing their willingness to make regular use of digital payment services.

Kenyans also experience frequent system failures and channel downtime causing delayed payment, reducing the chance a user will trust that channel next time.

The regulator, whose solution was to proscribe itself on tariffs and pricing policies, says one of its greatest fear of the pinch of inconvenience caused by downtimes, is that it might drive Kenyans away from digital currencies and from the Kenya Revenue Authority.

“As the majority of transactions remain in cash, the government may have limited visibility of most transactions. This affects the ability to collect all revenue due to it,” Dr Njoroge said.

While banks do their best to resolve these cases, with an increase in the number of transactions, lenders have begun to loosen their grasp. The Kenya Bankers Association Banking Industry Customer Satisfaction Survey (BICSS) 68.9 percent of respondents indicated that their banks were always able to respond to complaints within two days of the complaint being raised against 74 percent recorded during 2021.

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