Zimbabwe’s restrictions on mobile money punish the users, not the offenders

Mobile financial services are, in most African countries, born out of crises. In 2011, Zimbabwe had gone through a volatile decade of economic crises – hyperinflation, currency instability and a collapse of the formal financial system. Consumers, mostly employed in the informal sector, had a widespread mistrust of the formal banking system.

In came Econet, a major mobile operator, to launch a mobile money service called Ecocash. Taking advantage of the country’s high mobile penetration, the service had 2.3 million users within 18 months. Today, close to 90% of adult Zimbabweans use Ecocash. In addition, Ecocash paved the way for competitors such as OneMoney, Telecash and Mycash.

The economic crisis in Zimbabwe spurred the rapid adoption and use of mobile money. First came cash shortages coupled with higher cash withdrawal fees and lower withdrawal limits. Then loss of savings to soaring inflation and loan denials in the formal banking system engendered mistrust among consumers. This forced a government-led drive towards a cashless economy and non-cash transactions.

Mobile money transfers in Zimbabwe are mainly from one person to another. This allows for urban to rural money remittances for family support, payment for goods and services in retail settings and financial flows between the formal and informal business sectors. Another important use of mobile money is to store money securely in high crime areas.

An important benefit is the cash-in and cash-out functionality. This allows users to deposit cash into a mobile account through a mobile money agent and withdraw physical cash at a convenient time and place. They can avoid the long queues and withdrawal limits set by the formal banking system.

Despite the compelling value proposition that mobile money offers, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe recently placed significant regulatory restrictions on ibyv operations. The regulator said mobile money services were fuelling illegal foreign currency exchange, money laundering and fraud, especially through the cash-in/cash-out service.

The restrictions followed the Reserve Bank’s audit of the four mobile money platforms, including Ecocash. It found that some accounts were opened using fictitious or unverified identification documents. There was also a rampant misuse of mobile money accounts for money laundering schemes and fraudulent overdrafts or fictitious credit. It also cited cases of foreign currency trading outside the formal channels.

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