The Critical Classroom – “Colonial Financial Infrastructures and Kenya’s Uneven Fintech Boom”

Nick Bernards (University of Warwick)

This piece (published Open Access in Volume 54, Issue 3, May 2022) shows how the geography of the much-vaunted fintech “miracle” in Kenya maps onto much older patterns of uneven development within the country, ultimately rooted in Kenya’s colonial history. I hope this piece might be useful to teach with, on upper-level undergraduate or on postgraduate classes, particularly for classes on global finance, on the political economy of development, or on African political economy. There are a couple themes where I think this may be a useful piece for students to engage with.

1) The Political Economy of Fintech

The concept for this article developed in part out of and alongside my own teaching. I run an honours-level undergraduate seminar on “Debt, Money, and Global Sustainable Development” at the University of Warwick. The class is a look at critical perspectives on the place of finance in the political economy/ecology of development. Towards the end of term, I teach a week on the political economy of fintech, using debates about the fintech boom in Kenya as a case study.

Kenya is an illuminating case to look at for these purposes because, for the advocates of fintech for development, it’s a (probably the) paradigmatic case. I usually have students start by reading Tavneet Suri and William Jack’s (2016) widely circulated article in Science, which makes the claim that the spread of mobile money has directly resulted in lifting 194,000 Kenyan households (or two percent of the country) out of poverty, alongside one or two more critical pieces. In the past I’ve assigned Milford Bateman and colleagues’ (2019) scathing critique of Suri and Jack, and Kevin Donovan and Emma Park’s (2019) excellent shorter piece on fintech and indebtedness in Kenya in the Boston Review.

I’ll be reconsidering that reading list the next time I teach the class, as there have been a number of excellent critical pieces looking at Kenyan fintech published in the past few months. Donovan and Park (2022) have very recently published a longer piece on similar themes in Antipode, and Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino (2021) have written an excellent piece placing the rise of fintech and other digital applications in the context of transformations in Kenyan agriculture in recent decades. My own piece, I hope, slots nicely alongside these.

I’ve always liked this approach to teaching the topic because it encourages students to think about the politics of knowledge construction and circulation. Suri and Jack’s article, and especially the 194,000 / 2% figure, has been cited and circulated very widely in media and development circles. It has powerfully shaped the way that M-Pesa in particular, and fintech in general, is viewed, and the construction of Kenya as a “success story” for fintech. It makes for an effective contrast to place them alongside my piece and/or the others suggested above. I and other critical views flesh out dynamics of power and uneven development that Suri and Jack gloss over. This invites considerations of how ideas circulate, what’s at stake, and what can get lost in the process of making a “success” story.

2) What is Colonialism?

My piece might also work well alongside some recent contributions on (neo)colonialism in fintech, and about the making of colonial legacies more generally.

A number of relevant pieces on colonialism and fintech came out within a few weeks of my own article. Paul Langley and Andrew Leyshon (2022), with an article in the Journal of Cultural Economy, and Milford Bateman and Fernando Amorim Teixeira (2022), in an online piece for the Review of African Political Economy, have recently published articles on the “neocolonial” aspects of fintech, in the latter case looking specifically at Kenya. Serena Natile’s excellent The Exclusionary Politics of Digital Financial Inclusion (2020) fits the bill as well. I think these pieces frame the “colonial” aspects of the Kenyan case very differently. I look more directly at the political economy of land and labour in colonial Kenya and how that has shaped the geography of subsequent development. The Langley and Leyshon and Bateman and Teixeira pieces are, albeit in different ways, concerned with the extractivist aspects of new fintech applications. Natile fleshes out how mobile money has reproduced or exacerbated gendered inequalities which she traces back to colonial-era transformations. There are the makings of an important debate here (albeit I think from largely complementary perspectives) about what colonialism/coloniality is and how it matters for development.


Bateman M, Duvendack M and Loubere N (2019) Is fin-tech the new panacea for poverty alleviation and local development? Contesting Suri and Jack’s M-Pesa findings published in Science. Review of African Political Economy 46(161):480-495

Bateman M and Teixeira F A (2022) Kenya and the rise of the financial inclusion delusion. 1 March (last accessed 19 May 2022)

Donovan K P and Park E (2019) Perpetual debt in the Silicon Savannah. Boston Review 20 September (last accessed 19 May 2022)

Donovan K P and Park E (2022) Knowledge/seizure: Debt and data in Kenya’s zero balance economy. Antipode

Langley P and Leyshon A (2022) Neo-colonial credit: Fintech platforms in Africa. Journal of Cultural Economy

Mann L and Iazzolino G (2021) From development state to corporate leviathan: Historicizing the infrastructural performativity of digital platforms within Kenyan agriculture. Development and Change 52(4):829-854

Natile S (2020) The Exclusionary Politics of Digital Financial Inclusion: Mobile Money, Gendered Walls. London: Routledge

Suri T and Jack W (2016) The long-run poverty and gender impacts of mobile money. Science 354(6317):1288-1292