Google Unveils Electronic-Payment Cards for Buses in Kenya

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-04-30

Google Unveils Electronic-Payment Cards for Buses in Kenya

Google has launched an electronic-payment system in Kenya so that bus riders there can pay with a card rather than with cash, which makes it easier for passengers and provides new streams of consumer information for Google.

The payment system, called BebaPay, is being run in partnership with East Africa's largest bank, Equity Bank, according to an April 30 post announcing the program on the Google Africa Blog by Aneto Okonkwo, a Google product manager.

"With BebaPay, you'll never again have to worry about carrying change for the bus, or keeping stacks of bulky tickets and receipts in your bag," wrote Okonkwo. "Instead, people traveling on key Nairobi bus routes such as Riruta, Karen and Jogoo Road will be able to pre-load money onto their BebaPay card, and swipe or tap it on the card reader when boarding a bus to pay for their journey."

The payment cards are available free from major bus stops in Kenya and can be loaded with money at select Equity Banks or using mobile money recharging systems, according to the post. Users can also track their spending on the cards and can receive a free receipt for each transaction. The BebaPay cards include software created by Google and smart cards that use near-field communication (NFC) technology, which allows the payments to take place offline, even when there is no power or network connectivity, according to Okonkwo.

But the bus lines aren't the only market where Google plans to introduce BebaPay in the future in Kenya.

"In time, Equity Bank will roll out BebaPay more widely, beyond the world of transport," wrote Okonkwo. "The free BebaPay app turns any NFC-enabled Android phone into a card reader, which means that shops, traders and small businesses can use BebaPay to accept payments from customers, without needing expensive tills and cash registers."

That's an intriguing proposition, and another way Google is pushing into new markets where it can continue its efforts to collect more and more information about users, according to two IT analysts who spoke with eWEEK.

"They're actually not just an Internet company anymore—they are an information company," said Dan Maycock, a mobile analyst with Slalom Consulting. "Google is all about how to give the world information," but at the same time, the company is also looking to collect valuable new information about users.

Google Unveils Electronic-Payment Cards for Buses in Kenya

"For Google to go into that space, it's not necessarily to get into the bus business but how do they get personal information out of that," which Google can sell and use, said Maycock. "And they will be very successful at it, I think, because there are a lot of problems" with an existing, competing mobile payment system in Africa, called M-Pesa. "M-Pesa is the current dominant mobile payment system in Africa, but it's very cumbersome."

By offering an alternative that works more smoothly, Google can come in, improve the system and create an information-gathering network for itself in a developing country, said Maycock. "For this service to come along, for Google to make it easier, faster and better, it helps customers and gives Google information. I think that's Google's logic in getting involved in this."

At the same time, by unveiling this system and getting Kenyans to use it and rely on it, Google will then plant the seeds for potential new users of Google's Android mobile devices, he said. "Android will be ready when users there want and can afford smartphones," said Maycock. "And they will use Google's new payment system so there will be a competitive edge for Android."

Rob Enderle, an independent IT analyst with Enderle Group, said the BebaPay system makes perfect sense for Google because it will help the company grow its collection of user data in more nations around the world.

"At the end of the day, Google wants to be the largest provider of personal information in the world and they want to corner the market in personal information," said Enderle. "One way to do that is to monitor your purchases and travel. Once they get into that electronic information, it's only a matter of time before they begin collecting your banking information, too. They're just not there yet. That's what this is all about."

Google is always trying new initiatives to reach deeper into consumer markets.

In March, Google launched a new service that allows online shoppers in the San Francisco Bay Area to make purchases online and get same-day local delivery through arrangements with a growing number of area retailers. The new delivery service is being piloted by Google to collect customer reaction and see how it works on a small scale to start. The program will initially be free for participants in the pilot, but will feature delivery charges in the future. Under the program, Google is arranging for third parties, such as couriers, to pick the products up from local stores and deliver the items to shoppers.

Rocket Fuel