The (mobile) market just solved Zimbabwe’s “coin problem”

I wonder if any of my readers remember my post about how ““Good E-money” can solve Zimbabwe’s ‘coin problem’”.

In my post on Zimbabwe’s so-called “coin problem” I came up with a possible solution:

“This might all seem like fantasy, but the fact remains that there today are around 500 million cell phones in Africa and there is 1 billion Africans. In the near future most Africans will own their own cell phone. This could lay the foundation for the formation of what would be a continent wide mobile telephone based Free Banking system.

Few Africans trust their governments and the quality of government institutions like central bankers is very weak. However, international companies like Coca Cola or the major international telecom companies are much more trusted. Therefore, it is much more likely that Africans in the future (probably a relatively near future) would trust money (or near-money) issued by international telecom companies – or Coca Cola for that matter.

In fact why not imagine a situation where Bitcoin merges with M-pesa so you get mobile telephone money backed by a quasi-commodity standard like the Bitcoin? I think most Africans readily would accept that money – at least their experience with government issued money has not exactly been so great.”

Guess what – the power of the market will never disappoint you. See this story:

EcoCash, a mobile money-transfer service operated by telecommunications company EcoNet Wireless Zimbabwe, has reached a million subscribers in under six months since its launch, according to Mobile Money Africa. EcoCash enables money transfers across all networks between mobile users, a rapidly expanding sector of the Zimbabwean population.

And in a country where 80 percent of residents do not have access to mainstream bank accounts, a service that requires nothing but a mobile phone is a popular and more convenient alternative. Mobile phone users now make up 77 percent of the population, compared to just 6 percent in 2006, reports Mobile Money for the Unbanked. And EcoNet Wireless, EcoCash’s parent company, has that market cornered in Zimbabwe, with 6.5 million customers, which represents 70 percent of the market share of cell phone users, according to Mobile Money Africa….

….Within that segment, EcoCash has seen success by targeting the low-end market. Customers don’t need to have bank accounts, and 1,400 street agents throughout the country help make subscribing a quick and easy process. Agents receive a commission when customers total transactions reach $50, encouraging agents to target those likely to be actively using the service…

While the legalization of foreign currency in 2009 has pulled Zimbabwe’s previously plummeting economy out of a nose-dive, it’s also created challenges, including a shortage of change. The “coin problem” can make small transactions difficult to complete accurately, reported the New York Times, and small transactions tend to be the kind low-income users make. But now mobile cash services like EcoCash allow precise payment, regardless of the size of a transaction.

The ease of transactions is just one factor contributing to the skyrocketing popularity of EcoCash. Actual banks are more difficult to access than mobile phones, and the dark history of the Zimbabwean dollar contributed to widespread distrust of traditional banking services, reports the Zimbabwe Daily Mail.

…Visibility aids EcoCash in its market domination. EcoCash markets its services through advertisements on public mini-buses, known as kombis, in urban areas, and over radio talk shows in rural areas. Widespread marketing helps keep EcoCash ahead of other, smaller competitor. And while some competitors require users to have bank accounts, EcoCash allows customers to bank with just their phone.

…EcoCash modeled much of its strategy off of the success of Kenyan mobile money service M-Pesa, also under the umbrella of a telecommunications company,Safaricom. M-Pesa’s popularity has exploded in Kenya, with a customer base of close to 15 million subscribers, up from 2 million over five years.

Like EcoNet, M-Pesa’s parent company, Safaricom, dominates the telecommunications market in Kenya with a 67 percent market share, according to The Zimbabwe Independent. Like EcoCash, M-Pesa grew rapidly in its first year, although EcoCash’s first-year growth outpaced that of M-Pesa. And while Microfinance Africa reports that other countries have had difficulty replicating the long-term success of M-Pesa, similar marketing and business strategies and market domination make EcoCash a potential candidate to exhibit similar growth.”

PS I know I promised more posts on African monetary reform – I hope I soon will get to it…

 

UNrelated post: Please have a look at Mayor Bill Woolsey’s fantastic blog Monetary Freedom. Bill’s posts over the last two weeks are incredibly good!

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10 Comments

  1. It is awesome to see technology like this getting deployed in Africa. Very inspiring and a great cause for optimism! Thanks for posting :)

    Reply
  2. Saturos

     /  September 25, 2012

    Is this the end of the ZLB as well then, regardless of whether Market Monetarists win?

    Side note: you don’t know how lucky you are that Major_Freedom doesn’t come to this blog…

    Reply
    • Saturos, that is actually a good point that I have made on a number of occasions that the market will find solutions to reduce the problem with monetary disequilibrium. Regulations and other rigidities however mean that that is unlikely to happen fast.

      Regarding Major_Freedom – lets just say I am less tolerant about what people write on MY blog than Scott is…I welcome debate, but no spamming and tabloid style language.

      Reply
  3. Your note on the infamous unreliability of African central banks reminds me of that Wikileaks memo and subsequent scandal where Gabonese officials of the Bank of Central African States stole 36 million dollars, gave some of it to the late and current president and the rest to the two biggest French political parties. So much about central bank transparency and independence.

    Reply
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