ZIMBABWEAN EXILES TURN TO THE WEB

Digital Content

Inflation in Zimbabwe is soaring, and its citizens abroad are pitching in to help relatives at home -- giving part of their earnings in South Africa, for example, to Zimbabwean businessmen there, who then truck food, cooking oil and other scarcities across the border.

Now a high-tech solution has arrived, with internet-based companies allowing Zimbabweans across the globe to go online to buy their loved ones everything from fuel and food to generators.

The website Mukuru.com offers an alternative to long queues at petrol stations short of fuel. Once a friend or relative has logged on and paid for fuel, the company sends an SMS to the recipient's cellphone in Zimbabwe containing a 10-digit number the person can exchange for vouchers at a designated coupon office.

They can then fill up their car at stations that import fuel independently and sell at market rates, rather than having to scramble for fuel when it becomes available locally at prices heavily subsidised by the government.

Two other sites, Zimbuyer.com and Zimland.com, offer a virtual shopping centre of Zimbabwean goods. Sitting in front of their computer abroad, people can pay for Zimbabwean staples such as sadza -- corn meal -- and a popular brand of baked beans, or even TVs and power generators, which are then delivered to addresses in the country's three largest cities within 72 hours. Buyers can log on to check the delivery status.

Mukuru.com founder Rob, who gave only his first name out of concern for his family in Zimbabwe -- where criticism of the government and its management of the economy can be dangerous -- came up with the idea when he worked for a multimedia firm. His site is run by eight Zimbabweans based in Britain, home to the second-largest diaspora community of Zimbabweans, after South Africa.

He said cellphone users in the West are fixated on the pictures they can put up on their cellphone screens or take with them, or features like using their cellphones as radios. But in the developing world, he said, "the power of the mobile phone is the SMS".

Africans in general have pioneered the use of cellphones to transfer value by using airtime as a virtual currency. Phone users can sell airtime for real money, or trade it for something else, thereby avoiding the relatively high costs of transferring small amounts of money through banks.

In Zimbabwe, the technology meets a stark need. Thea Fourie, a South Africa-based analyst for independent market-analysis firm Global Insight, said scarce goods and high unemployment in Zimbabwe, combined with salaries not keeping up with the rises in goods and services, mean any transfer of money to Zimbabweans from abroad can help.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is accused by critics in the West and at home of ruining what was once an African economic success story with a chaotic and often-violent campaign to seize thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe defends the program as a way of righting severe imbalances in land ownership inherited from British colonial rule. He blames food shortages in a country that once was a regional breadbasket on years of crippling drought, and has cracked down on dissenters.

Fourie said that while some Zimbabweans can be helped by money from abroad, it will have only a "marginal" impact on overall economic performance in Zimbabwe, "because the whole problem is so structured around the political aspect".

A Zimbuyer.com spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear for the safety of his family in Zimbabwe, said that the site's most popular items are cooking oil, soap, rice, meat, and corn meal. "Also, people are buying the power generators a lot because there are 20-hour power cuts in Harare now," he said. The company is run by four Zimbabweans in Britain and the United States.

Douglas Siwira, a 41-year-old businessman living in Britain, uses Mukuru.com to buy fuel for his family in Zimbabwe. He praises the "promptness" of the transaction.

In 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available, Zimbabwe had 668 000 cellphone subscribers, a penetration rate of 5,6% -- double that for land lines -- according to the United Nations's International Telecommunication Union, which is responsible for standardisation, coordination and development of international telecommunications.

Mukuru.com started in February last year and now has 6,500 customers all over the world. It also allows those registered on the site to pay for satellite TV for and transfer money to people in Zimbabwe, and plans to offer mobile airtime top-ups by the end of the month.

Zimbabweans are allowed to have foreign-currency accounts in local banks, but the money can only be changed at the official exchange rate. So Zimbabweans living abroad also protect their earnings by keeping them in foreign banks and transferring money only as needed.

The companies may have started with the idea of helping their countrymen. Now they are looking at expanding to other parts of Africa where it is easier to operate. "I think the tragedy of the situation is we're least excited about Zimbabwe," said Rob. "We're out to spend time and money in Africa. We want to be putting billboards up; we want to be sponsoring attractions and music events there."

Mukuru.com has already started offering services to South Africa and now plans to branch out into Kenya and Zambia by July, Malawi by August and Ghana by the end of the year.

(SOURCE: Mail & Guardian)