Knowledge/seizure: Debt and data in Kenya’s zero balance economy

Kevin P. Donovan*, Emma Park

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article examines the growth in mobile phone-based lending in Kenya, where millions now borrow from services that translate digital data into credit scores. Reeling from ongoing retrenchment and marketisation, many find themselves turning to expensive, short-term credit to “buy time”. We depart from actuarial approaches to the digital economy that foreground the technical analysis of data in order to emphasise the importance of racialised expropriation and rentier capitalism. We focus on Safaricom, the corporation at the centre of the digital data and debt industry, showing how its infrastructural power and absent regulation permit it to seize value from users. Safaricom serves not only its own accumulation, but the fiscal imperatives of a Kenyan state that is, like its citizens, groaning under untenable debt. Citizens and state alike operate within the twinned constraints of illiquidity and volatility, a situation we call the “zero balance economy”. By linking the popular and sovereign debt crises we explore parastatal formations of predatory inclusion—neither market nor state, but an unwieldy amalgamation of the two.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1063-1085
JournalAntipode: A Radical Journal of Geography
Issue number4
Early online date16 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022


  • debt
  • digital
  • financial technology
  • Kenya
  • mobile money
  • rent
  • Safaricom


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