NAIROBI, Dec. 9 (Xinhua) -- On Saturday evening, Samuel Odhiambo received a "strange" distress call from a friend, who had taken his family for an outing at a mall east of Nairobi.
"I am stranded. Please come and bail me because it's been an hour of waiting and Mpesa is not working," his friend told him.
The friend had taken meals at a restaurant and his children had played at the kids' park with the bill coming to 6,000 Kenyan shillings (59 U.S. dollars). However, when he went to pay, the system was not working.
"He paid the money but the message to confirm the transaction did not come, therefore he could not be allowed to leave," recounted Odhiambo, an accountant, who drove to the mall and paid the money.
Many Kenyans were in a similar situation at various establishments that include bars, supermarkets, fuel stations, agency shops and hotels across the east African nation as the mobile money service experienced downtime.
Those who had fuelled their cars and attempted to pay through mobile money could not leave.
Similarly, those who had consumed food at hotels, reached onto their mobile phones to pay and had to wait for hours at the facilities unless they paid cash.
It was a nightmare for those who had withdrawn money at agents and could not leave because of lack of a transaction completion message to allow the agents give them money. The outage was for over three hours.
Mpesa, run by Safaricom, is Kenya's leading mobile money service, with over 24 million people using the service out of the 30 million subscribers, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya.
Between April and June, Mpesa users transacted 14.6 billion dollars, most of which was person-to-person transactions, the latest data from the regulator showed. Therefore, any slight delay in the service affects millions.
"I bought fuel for my car using Mpesa and transactions are not going through. I am now stranded at this petrol station for an hour hoping things work out," recounted Mathews Kamala on Twitter, where hundreds shared their frustrations.
"I am being held at this hotel because I have paid by mobile money and transactions are not going through. What is the problem?" asked Vivian.
For Brian Muinde, the embarrassment at the cashier after shopping a trolley full of goods and failing to pay using his phone would linger in his mind for some time.
"It was a big lesson for me. People who were paying in cash looked at me, annoyed that I was wasting time at the till. I opted to return the goods to the shelves and walk out," he said.
Safaricom, in a statement on Saturday evening, attributed the downtime to database degradation.
"We regret to notify our customers and partners that Mpesa services are currently unavailable due to database degradation, leading to loss of service," CEO Bob Collymore said.
"Our engineers are working to restore service as soon as possible," he added.
In a Facebook post on Sunday afternoon, Safaricom said Mpesa services resumed late Saturday night but outage reoccurred on Sunday morning but was resolved in about half an hour.
"Our engineers are working with officials from both the Central Bank of Kenya and Communications Authority of Kenya to ensure continuity of services," the telco said.
Henry Wandera, an economics lecturer in Nairobi, said the events that followed the downtime show how mobile money is key in the lives of Kenyans.
"The system is at the heart of the lives of Kenyans and the country's economy. Kenyans have become comfortable using mobile money that a good number don't carry cash anymore, but such experiences are the reason cash remains king in Kenya's financial system even as people embrace mobile money," he said on Sunday.
The National Treasury, in a report last year, said the ubiquitous nature of mobile money in Kenya should be regarded as a "fiscal risk" to the country's economy due to its extensive inter-linkage with payment systems in different sectors. Enditem