Man selling scratch cards. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Is Kenya's scratch cards business on its deathbed?

Christine Wanjiku, a bartender in a Ruiru nightclub, cannot remember the last time she bought an airtime top-up voucher from a shop.

The same is the case for Victor Maingi who works as a technical instructor attached to the National Industrial Training Authority (Nita).

This is the story of many mobile phone users who have, over time, subconsciously ditched the traditional culture of purchasing physical cards to fulfil their talk time, messaging and data top-up needs.

During their heyday, the vouchers which are commonly known as scratch cards, were a permanent fixture in retail shops as well as in garbage containers and littered streets, a phenomenon that has since changed as users increasingly shift to digitally-enabled transactions.

Small-scale vendors who spoke to Business Daily say they have seen a rapid drop in sales volumes of the cards in recent years, with some predicting a complete phase-out in two years’ time.

Take Beatrice Akinyi for example, a small-scale merchant who runs a micro-kiosk along Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue. Three years ago, she was selling at least five Sh1,000-worth cards, five worth Sh500 each and 10 at Sh100 each.

Today, the highest value she stocks is that of Sh100 vouchers whose sales barely hit five in a day. The rest of the vouchers in her shop are those valued at Sh50 and Sh20, which also take weeks to clear.

“Based on the trends we’re seeing, the scratch cards business might not be in existence in another two years. People, especially the younger generation, have completely changed their airtime-consuming habits in favour of mobile-enabled purchasing methods. They are not likely to revert to the physical vouchers,” says Ms Akinyi.

She is now considering focusing more on the sweets and biscuits business.

According to Safaricom, the country’s largest telco by customer base and revenue, the amount of income generated through consumption of airtime via top-up vouchers declined 35.6 percent during the two-year period to March 2022, to stand at Sh34.9 billion down from the Sh54.2 billion raised in 2020.

The telco’s disclosures in its 2022 sustainability report show that last year’s dip followed closely that of 2021 when the sale of scratch cards generated Sh43.8 billion for Safaricom.

Data from rival mobile operators remained scanty as Business Daily queries remained unanswered by the time of going to press.

But is it all dark and gloomy for scratch cards ?

A section of Kenyans still retain attachment, offering some hope that the scratch cards business may live longer.

“It’s going to take me a little while before I completely shift from using scratch cards. Their tangibility gives them that feeling of being real and that for me brings some satisfaction. I guess it’s a psychological thing,” says Peter Mwaura, a 56-year-old, who forms part of an older generation that is seemingly reluctant to embrace new-age solutions.

However, the slow death of the scratch card business is a blessing in disguise for conservationist.

Fewer scratch cards mean less paper consumption in the race towards achieving net-zero carbon emission goals.

“The accelerated uptake of technology solutions to reduce paper consumption is to be encouraged. It makes it even better when the shift is market-led because then firms are spared the pressure that comes with racing to attain certain deliverables within set timelines,” said Dr Edward Mungai, lead consultant and partner at carbon and sustainability advisory firm Impact Africa Consulting.

In its report, Safaricom says it evaded emitting up to 2.5 million grams of carbon dioxide during the 12-month period to March, on account of saving on the use of 141,111 pieces of paper.