Econet said it expects to issue at least three million debit cards over the next five years, equal to roughly a quarter of Zimbabwe's population.

The EcoCash mobile companion debit card, which is linked to its mobile money service, is also expected to increase financial inclusion in a country where most people have no formal jobs.

"This is the first time that physical MasterCard debit cards are available to people using mobile money services in Africa," the companies said in a joint statement.

The card is aimed at reducing dependence on the use of cash in Zimbabwe, which ditched its own currency for US dollars and South African rands five years ago at the peak of an economic crisis.

The dumping of the Zimbabwe dollar for foreign currencies in 2009 helped stabilise the economy and tame crippling hyperinflation.

But it has also created new headaches, including a lack of small change, forcing people to use heavily spoiled notes.

Econet is Zimbabwe's biggest telecommunications company with nine million subscribers.

Econet says more than 5% of the country's adult population now used its mobile money service, Ecocash with transactions on the platform estimated at over $400 million per month, which translates to close to $5 billion per month.

The revelation was made by group chief executive officer Douglas Mboweni as the company, launched its latest, ground-breaking EcoCash MasterCard, a debit and credit card supported by global card company MasterCard, in Harare yesterday.

He said the card would significantly assist in reducing dependence on cash thereby increasing financial inclusion through the provision of electronic payments.

An estimated 40% of Zimbabweans are believed to be financially excluded while another 22% rely on informal financial products or services.

More than three million MasterCard debit card will be issued to Ecocash customers in the next five years, which is reportedly the first time MasterCard debit cards have been made available to people using mobile money services in Africa.

Through the product, Mboweni predicted that Zimbabwe will become the most cashless country in Africa by the end of the year, in keeping with its desire to see Zimbabweans buy and sell goods without using bank notes.

"From the outset, we have always believed that our main competitor is paper money in the form of banknotes. We want Zimbabweans to buy and sell goods without using bank notes," said Mboweni.

He said the tight availability of bank notes had created an opportunity to create the first truly cashless country in Africa.

The Ecocash debit card can be used anywhere in the world, and unlike a normal debit card, it can be used by someone who does not have a bank account.

Mboweni said that the adoption of the electronic payment was critical to economic development.

With the card, EcoCash customers will be able to withdraw money from MasterCard-licensed ATMs and pay for goods and services at millions of merchants that accept MasterCard payment cards, both in Zimbabwe and internationally.

The card will reduce transactions to the customers and customers will be able to pay anything using the card at any master card point nationwide," said Cuthbert Tembedza, Ecocash CEO.

He said the customer can easily suspend the card and request for a new one in the event of loss.

About 700 agents have been employed to work with customers to avoid fake usage of the EcoCash debit card.

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