SPEAKING at a microfinance symposium in Turin, Italy, recently, Econet Wireless founder Strive Masiyiwa recalled the ruling by the judge who gave him a licence in 1998 saying that “70 percent of people in the country had never heard a telephone ring”
The licence was granted after a costly five-year legal battle against the government.
According to the UK-based Guardian newspaper Masiyiwa told the Turin gathering that “today, 75 percent of people [in Zimbabwe] have a cell phone; and I want 75 percent of the people in Africa to have a bank account … on a mobile phone.”
Not only that, Econet Wireless has since grown into a diversified technology and financial services group with operations in 17 countries including Botswana, Lesotho, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and New Zealand.
Another problem, and opportunity, arose when the government ditched the Zimbabwe dollar in 2009 for more stable foreign currencies.
The transacting public, having struggled with huge amounts of worthless cash in the hyperinflation years, welcomed the decision.
But with the country’s productive and export sectors all but collapsed, there just wasn’t enough of the foreign currencies in circulation.
“If you wanted to buy a packet of sweets for your child, you couldn’t get change,” said Masiyiwa.
Econet intervened with a mobile payments system which has set Zimbabwe on course to become Africa’s first cashless economy.
“Today 43 percent of the GDP moves through Econet Wireless,” said the telecoms mogul.
Explained Econet’s chief executive, Douglas Mboweni , recently said: “We do not expect anyone to still be using paper money in a year’s time. It will be just like Europe or America, where you no longer see people carrying bundles of cash.”
Masiyiwa told the Guardian that his next challenge is to create a product that allows people who are informally employed, such as smallholder farmers and casual workers, to access credit.
“In Africa 70 percent of people are informally employed. The big frontier for us is to create platforms where those people can access credit,” he says.
There is little risk that they will get into unmanageable debt because the banks won’t extend excessive credit, calling the system “self-regulating”.
“We’re trying to build up a savings culture where people are encouraged to save, even if they only have a dollar – for children’s school fees, for transport, for the doctor. A savings and credit infrastructure builds resilience.”
However, in order to reach the unbanked, financial institutions – and telecommunications companies – must design services that are practical, simple and affordable.
“I’ve got a customer who has a dollar in his pocket and has got to decide to have some lunch, call his cousin or go to the doctor. We have to develop services with sensitivity to the fact that in Africa our customers don’t have the same disposable income as in New Zealand, for example,” he said.
It would however, be a mistake to assume the poorest behave differently to other customers.
“Their behaviour and aspirations are no different from those who have higher incomes,” cautioned Masiyiwa.
“They want to use Facebook. They want to use WhatsApp. We have to find ways for them to access those things with their very low income.”