USSD or app; which is better mobile money conduit?


One hundred and fifty five years ago, French teacher-turned novelist, cretic and editor, Jean Batiste Karr, thought up the French axiom, plus ça change plus cést la méme chose (The more things change, the more they remain same.)

Ported into computer dialect, retired and rusty concepts always sneak into emerging technologies ( citation, emphasis mine). Acronym for Unstructured Supplementary Data Service, USSD or Short Code, is an old-time way your cellphone lets you‘speak’ to computers for mobile telecommunication companies.

When you dial *370# on an Airtel prepaid number, airtime balance pops up. By doing so, you engage into a real-time conversation with Airtel’s billing system’s computer in USSD linguistics.


The USSD ‘language’ is unstructured because there is nobody who regulates it. While Airtel uses a more consistent form, TNM uses#123# offshoot for the same. It is supplementary to other data services like SMS.

The USSD lingo is limited to 182 alphanumeric characters per a tête-à-tête. The beauty, however, is that you do not need a complicated mobile phone nor airtime and internet bundle to partake; anything goes.

Being a tech junkie who has probably overstayed a generation welcome, I can say, with certainty, that the computers of today are in English. It was not so at the beginning. Anybody remembers Microsoft’s Disk Operating System (DOS), the precursor to the present day’s Windows?


In the DOS era, computer adeptness depended on how many DOS commands you could memorize. DOS, USSD and others are what can ‘loosely’ be christened machine languages. You have to lean their ‘code’ or those computers and systems can, with no trouble, declare you dumb.

Fascinatingly, USSD cypher, with its menu based options, is very salacious; people unconsciously use it in the village as they transact on Airtel Money and Mpamba.

USSD is the conduit for mobile money platforms. It is an exclusively owned by mobile operators like TNM and Airtel. These telecom companies of tencartelize the short code environment. Ever wondered why Mpamba and Airtel Money are the overriding Mobile Money platforms? They are ‘minibuses’ that belong to the owners of the mobile money highways. In Kenya, neutral operators sanitized the mobile money ecosystem.

Are mobile money platforms for commercial banks not players as well? Those, chiefly replicate their banking roles. They, intrinsically, ensure that mobile money operators (MMOs) do not eat into their lunch.

Mobile Money platforms are tools for financial inclusion; there are there to cater for the unbanked communities. In such populations, USSD is key.

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