Money or Power? Choosing Covid-19 aid in Kenya

Journal Article
Published on 18 January 2024

This paper has been published in Energy Economics in November 2023.


In response to the Covid-19 crisis, 186 countries implemented direct cash transfers to households, and 181 introduced in-kind programs that lowered the cost of utilities such as electricity, water, transport, and mobile money. During times of crisis, do people prefer in-kind transfers or cash, and why? In this paper, we compare electricity transfers against a benchmark of cash transfers (mobile money) among 2000 rural and urban residents of Kenya with pre-paid electricity meter connections. We offer participants an incentivized choice between electricity transfers or mobile money, totaling approximately USD 10 to 15, and then implement their choice over three months. We generate three main findings. First, participants overwhelmingly prefer cash, with three-quarters of participants opting for mobile money even when offered electricity tokens with a cash value that is 40 percent higher, possibly due to the flexibility in expenditures or credit constraints. Second, despite relatively low baseline electricity consumption, preference for cash is slightly lower in rural areas, possibly due to higher transaction costs for purchasing electricity, lower mobile money penetration, or savings constraints. Third, electricity tokens transfers generate a larger increase in electricity consumption than equivalent cash transfers, suggesting a role for mental accounting; however, we estimate no impact of either electricity or cash transfers on a broad set of socioeconomic outcomes. These patterns suggest that mobile money transfers generate larger welfare gains than electricity credit, at least in settings with high mobile money penetration.


Susanna Berkouwer

University of Pennsylvania

Pierre Biscaye

University of California, Berkeley

Eric Hsu

Yale University

Oliver Kim

University of California, Berkeley

Kenneth Lee

Energy Policy Institute

Edward Miguel

University of California, Berkeley

Catherine Wolfram

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)