In a study published Friday in the journal Science, economists at MIT and Georgetown have found that a service allowing users to send and receive money on their mobile phones has significantly reduced poverty in Kenya.
According to long-term surveys, M-Pesa (short for “mobile money” in Swahili) helped 194,000 families, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty between 2008 and 2014. Among other factors, the authors found that M-Pesa makes it easier to weather financial or health crises, both by increasing savings rates and allowing users to tap wider support networks. The effect was particularly pronounced for women and female-led households, which previous analysis has attributed to mobile banking’s tendency to give women more power in typically patriarchal societies.
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At the highest level, the study credits mobile banking with increasing the efficiency of the entire Kenyan economy, by helping users make more productive choices both on spending and employment. Kenya’s economic growth has been remarkable in recent years, with an expansion of of 5.3% in 2014, and projections putting 2016 growth at 6.0%—within striking distance of China’s recent growth of 6.7%.
In addition to its broader economic benefits, M-Pesa has been a business triumph. In November, M-Pesa operator Safaricom reported half-year profits of 23.9 billion Kenyan shillings, or about $234 million U.S. dollars. M-Pesa, which charges users small fees, generated about 1/4th of total revenue. M-Pesa now has 17.6 million active users in Kenya, with, according to the new study, at least one user in 96% of Kenyan households.
The new research seems to bear out predictions made by figures including Bill Gates, whose foundation has made investments in mobile banking tech in Bangladesh as part of its campaign against global poverty.
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M-Pesa users can make deposits and withdrawals from their mobile accounts with 110,000 agents, in addition to sending and receiving money over the digital network. Other services, including mobile-only credit lines and retail payment systems, have been added recently.
While this study focused on Kenya, similar mobile banking services are now available in 93 countries, with a total of 134 million active accounts. In nearly half of these markets, mobile services are vastly more accessible than traditional banking. It seems safe to assume, then, that the services are having similar effects in poverty reduction and economic development around the world.