Two decades ago, a group of employees gathered at an apartment at Norfolk Towers in Nairobi to start work at a company that had just been hived off the Kenya Posts and Telecommunication Company.
The company was named Safaricom and its business was mobile telecommunications. Its name was an amalgam of ‘safari’ and ‘communications’ and had been given to the department at KPTC when it was created in 1993.
Safaricom would later be launched at the Carnivore in Nairobi in October 2000 under the catchy vision: The Better Option.
As Safaricom marks 20 years of its existence this month, the Newsroom looks back, with nostalgia, at some of words and names of Safaricom’s products, services and campaigns over the year. Words and phrases that have since become part of everyday lingo of Kenyans, people in the region and beyond.
Mteja – client/customer – became popular because of the catchy one-line sentence: “Samahani, mteja wa nambari uliyopiga hapatikani kwa sasa (Sorry, the mobile subscriber cannot be reached)”, which is an automatic voice message after several rings that the person you are trying to call is unavailable.
It has become the word for when someone is unavailable not just on phone but when someone is beyond reach at the moment. ‘Being mteja’ is now taken simply to mean that the customer/person is not available. Maggie Wazome, the woman behind the voice, also eventually showed her face and talked about the origin of the recording.
Sambaza is a Swahili word to say: ‘to distribute or to share’. Initially, if a customer wanted to send another user airtime, the only option was to send the 12 digits of a scratch card via text. But that changed in 2005 when Safaricom launched Sambaza, a service that enables subscribers to share airtime or internet bundles with other users. Now Sambaza is a by-word for seeking help. It is now also possible to send internet bundles to another customer using Sambaza Bundles. Along with Sambaza came the flashback service, which became popularly known as ‘Please call me’ now a popular Kenyan word for SOS.
Bamba is a Swahili word, which means ‘to catch’ and the Bamba 50 card introduced new usage of the word. It has also informed academic studies and is still used in its original meaning and a variety of other contexts. The word ‘bamba’ foray into Safaricom lingo in 2006 came when the KSh50 airtime scratch card was launched. This helped deepen mobile phone use in the lower segments. This came after the introduction of per-second billing, which is viewed as one of the factors that enabled Safaricom to gain market share early in its lifetime. That happened in 2003, in its third year of existence, but before that was the introduction of low-denomination airtime in the form of a scratch card for KSh100 at a time the competition’s lowest denomination airtime was KSh300. The Bamba 50 would come three years later and the word acquired new meaning and lives to date.
The ubiquitous word, that is not only synonymous with Safaricom, but with Kenya. M-PESA, Africa’s most successful mobile money service, provides access to financial services to the millions of people who have a mobile phone, but do not have or have only limited access to a bank account.
M-PESA came to Safaricom via Vodafone in 2006. The latter had participated in a proposal set up by the British Government’s Department for International Development to deepen financial inclusion for the unbanked.
The initial idea was to use mobile phones to disburse and collect micro loans and Vodafone asked Safaricom to help try it.
It was tested with a small group in Thika in 2006 and the implementers noticed that members of the test group were using it to send money to each other. Safaricom then built it around the idea that the service could be used by urban dwellers to send money back home to their relatives, rather than the tedious process of depositing it in their bank accounts or carrying large sums of money. Beyond making payments and transferring money in Kenya, you can now do more with M-PESA global, a service that enables M-PESA registered customers to send and receive money globally via Western Union and Paypal.
Before mobile telephony arrived in Kenya, credit used to be a term used in banks and by accountants. Now, the word is used at shops when someone wants to buy airtime or when someone asks you if you can Sambaza them credo.
What do you do when you are sending M-PESA but you have insufficient funds in your account to complete your transaction?
You can Fuliza. Fuliza, from the Swahili word mfululizo, means continuously flowing.
The service came about when the team at Safaricom’s Financial Services and Big Data in 2018 noticed a unique phenomenon from looking at the data generated by M-PESA customers. Of the numerous transactions that were cancelled because of insufficient funds, more than 50 per cent were fulfilled within two days. This meant that a majority of the customers would realise at the point of closing the transaction that they could not because they did not have sufficient balance but would finish them within 48 hours.
Naming Kenya’s first mobile overdraft service was interesting. “When we came up with that name, there was quite an interesting debate here. Most people wanted to call it Okoa M-PESA or something like that and having lived in Tanzania, when we got the name Fuliza, it just fitted well,” Sitoyo Lopokoyit, the Chief Financial Services Officer at the company, would later reflect. Fuliza is now mostly used to mean ‘to borrow’.
The word means to press and it became popular in Safaricom’s 2013 marketing promotion—Bonyeza Ushinde na Safaricom—where the winner of the grand prize walked away with KSh10 million while others won a variety of cash prizes. The task was for customers to answer questions on their feature phones to accumulate points. The successful campaign worked for both the customers, the company and left behind a catchy phrase used to date.
Safaricom’s largest customer promotion campaign in 2019 saw more than five million customers take home more than KSh250 million in prizes, but it got tongues wagging with its unique adjective. Kochokocho simply means ‘a lot’ and so curious were Kenyans that when you enter the word in Google, it predicts that you want to find out its meaning.
9. Okoa Jahazi
The mobile airtime advance service was launched in April 2009. Like other products, the idea was to make life simple for customers by enabling them to get airtime on credit and then pay it back with a little interest later. ‘Okoa jahazi’ soon acquired an extended use in Kenyan lingo to say, ‘Help me out here.’
10. Bonga Points
This loyalty scheme introduced in 2007 saw enrolled customers accumulating a point for every KSh10 spent on services on the Safaricom network. The points could then be redeemed for airtime, for a discount on phones and other devices sold by the company, and data.
When the Covid-19 arrived in Kenya earlier this year, with its devastating effect on the economy, Safaricom introduced the Bonga for Good initiative, through which customers could use their points to pay for goods and services at Lipa na M-PESA points, or to send points to each other.
In two months, customers had redeemed one billion Bonga Points. ‘Bonga Points’ also became a by-word for credit for good deeds such as taking care of the kids or helping out.
This story is part of the Safaricom@20 celebrations. For 20 years, Safaricom has developed new technologies and innovations to support and enable Kenyans to communicate, connect and to go beyond.