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Zimbabwe: Could it be Africa's first cashless economy?

January 22, 2014: 10:41 AM ET

Zimbabwe's biggest wireless provider wants to bring mobile-based money services to the currency-challenged African country.

By Erik Heinrich

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Econet Wireless founder and chairman Strive Masiyiwa.

FORTUNE -- Zimbabwean telecom tycoon (and the country's only billionaire) Strive Masiyiwa has been called a "global business influential," a "face of New Africa," and the "Bill Gates of Africa." He continues to live up to the reputation with a new venture that's as bold as they come.

The founder and chairman of Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe's biggest wireless network operator, wants to turn the company's mobile wallet technology, known as EcoCash, into Zimbabwe's primary method of payment. It's no small task: Masiyiwa essentially wants to replace printed currency with digital money, transforming his native country into Africa's first paperless economy.

Can it be done? It's not as far-fetched as you might think. Zimbabwe -- ruled for decades by the iron-fisted dictator Robert Mugabe and, accordingly, subject to economic sanctions from the U.S. and EU -- needs an alternative to cash more badly than perhaps any other country in Africa. In the late 2000s, it suffered from such mind-boggling hyperinflation -- at its height in 2008, a can of Coca-Cola that cost ZIM$50 billion in the morning would cost ZIM$150 billion at the close of business on the same day -- that it abandoned its own currency in 2009 in favor of currency from other, more stable countries.

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Today, Zimbabwe's economy relies almost exclusively on the U.S. dollar. But the "dollarization" of its economy has created a new set of problems. The limited number of bills in circulation are old and tatty, and shopkeepers are unable to make change due to a shortage of coins. That means shoppers are forced to accept change in the form of chewing gum, cigarettes, and other small items.

Enter EcoCash. "EcoCash has been able to take advantage of this situation by providing an alternative medium of exchange from physical dollars," says Laurence Chandy, a development specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "When payments are made at stores, change can be provided in the form of an airtime top-up or mobile money."

There's no question that EcoCash is filling a basic consumer need in one of Africa's poorest countries, where a great deal of the population has been excluded from the formal banking system. In a little over two years, the service has registered 31% of Zimbabwe's adult population, a group responsible for more than $200 million in transactions per month -- that's about 22% of the country's GDP -- using their mobile phones.

For Econet, the program is a way for it to diversify its portfolio away from its core voice and data business, where revenue growth has been weak. With an early success on its hands, Econet is staking much of its future growth in Zimbabwe -- and other African countries in which it does business including Nigeria, South Africa, and Botswana -- on non-voice revenues that come from programs like EcoCash.

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"EcoCash is a strategic response to a strategic challenge," says Darlington Mandivenga, CEO of Econet Services, a subsidiary tasked with expanding the company's nontraditional revenue streams, including microinsurance and microfinance. "What is happening in the telecoms industry is that revenues are stagnant, if not on the decline, with [average revenue per user] under pressure for various reasons such as competition and market saturation."

To help EcoCash become Zimbabwe's dominant payment system for retail transactions, Econet has embarked on an aggressive merchant acquisition campaign. It is sacrificing short-term profitability by paying out 80% of revenue in agent commissions to build a strong and dedicated network.

At the same time, the company is using bank-grade technology to fast-track interoperability with Zimbabwe's major financial institutions and make it easier to deploy new mobile services. One of those services is Ecosave, which allows otherwise "unbanked" people to safely put away money for emergencies. In two weeks, the tool prompted an influx of 500,000 new account openings, turning Econet subsidiary Steward Bank into the country's largest bank by number of accounts.

"The vast majority of the population is unbanked and trapped in cash," says Kathleen McGowan, senior policy advisor with the Washington-based U.S. Agency for International Development. "Businesses and service providers were without the critical market infrastructure required to create fee-for-service business models and develop financial products designed to help the poor withstand potentially ruinous financial shocks such as crop destruction."

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If successful, could Zimbabwe's EcoCash overtake Kenya's M-Pesa -- which, with a four-year head start has signed up two-thirds of the adult population in that country -- as the world's gold standard for wireless financial services? It's unclear. "Rather than a universal model, EcoCash is specific to Zimbabwe," says Michael Fuchs, a finance and development specialist who spent years in Africa working for the World Bank. "It represents a market solution to managing demand for cash balances due to dollarization."

USAID's McGowan was also unconvinced. "Fully replacing cash is highly aspirational," she says, "and hasn't been achieved even by countries like Singapore and Malaysia, which have pursued national strategies for several years."

Nonetheless, EcoCash must continue to build confidence in its digital payment system. "Customers need to be assured that money stored on their phones electronically is truly liquid and will retain its value," says Brookings' Chandy. "If customers get spooked, they may intuitively run back to physical cash."

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