Zimbabwe: Rural women bank by mobile phone (IPS)

| November 21, 2011

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Collecting the monthly subscriptions for her co-operative has always been a headache for Thelma Nare. This is because Mrs. Nare lives in Tshitshi, a remote village in Zimbabwe, about 60 kilometres away from the nearest bank.

Mrs. Nare explains that the co-operative members live far from each other in rural areas. Some find it difficult to attend meetings, so they don’t meet very often. In the past, if members could not attend, there was no way for them to make their monthly contribution. The women in the co-operative, or money club, as it is called in Zimbabwe, do not have a bank account.

Then Mrs. Nare discovered mobile phone cash transfers while on a trip to Bulawayo, some 100 kilometres from Tshitshi.  She says, “When I told the other women in my money club [about mobile cash transfers], it seemed to be the answer to our problems.” Mobile phone cash transfers allow people without bank accounts to send and receive cash.

The system is fairly simple. A user registers for mobile phone banking with their service provider and is given an “e-wallet.” This is linked to their phone number. When users want to pay for services or transfer money, they go to an agent and pay the desired amount, which is loaded onto their e-wallet. The payment is sent to the recipient’s e-wallet. Then, the recipient can withdraw the money from an agent. There are agents across the country in supermarkets, post offices, and stores, making the service easily accessible in rural areas.

It is a convenient system for Mrs. Nare and the women in her co-operative. They can now make trips to Bulawayo to sell produce, without worrying that they will miss co-operative payments. As with many co-operatives, defaulters are not particularly valued. But these women would have not been able to cope with the country’s failing economy if it had not been for the money club.

These rural women are at the centre of efforts by mobile phone service providers to introduce mobile phone money transfers in Zimbabwe. Mobile network giant Econet Wireless has five million subscribers. It introduced the service in September. Competitors quickly followed, including NetOne and Telecel, both of which are owned by the government.

Viola Matongerere is an economist and gender and development specialist. She comments “These are services which people, especially rural women, have always wanted.” According to her, the efforts of rural women in Zimbabwe to improve their livelihoods have been held back their inability to access things that men have ready access to, like bank accounts. Services such as mobile phone money transfers will give women more financial independence.

Girlie Moyo is a member of Mrs. Nare’s co-operative. She says “The fact that we can organise ourselves as women in our co-operative through our phones is what matters.”