Web breaches Mugabe fortress

ONLINE RESCUE: Most Zimbabweans buy goods in South Afica and carry them north, but now they buy online from anywhere in the world for direct delivery. Pic. Elijar Mushiana. 3012/03. © Sowetan.
ONLINE RESCUE: Most Zimbabweans buy goods in South Afica and carry them north, but now they buy online from anywhere in the world for direct delivery. Pic. Elijar Mushiana. 3012/03. © Sowetan.

Louise Watt

Louise Watt

Inflation in Zimbabwe has soared to almost 3000percent, and its citizens abroad are pitching in to help relatives back home.

One of the ways they are doing this is by giving part of their earnings in South Africa, for example, to Zimbabwean businessmen there, who then truck food, cooking oil and other scarce necessities 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 the long queues at petrol stations. Once a friend or relative logs on and pays for the fuel, the company sends an SMS to the recipient's cellphone in Zimbabwe with a 10-digit number that can be exchanged for fuel vouchers at a designated coupon office.

They can then fill up at stations that import fuel independently and sell it 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 computers abroad, people can pay for Zimbabwean staples such as mealie meal, tins of baked beans, or even TVs and power generators, that are then delivered directly 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 gives only his first name out of fear for his family in Zimbabwe, 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 says cellphone users were fixated on the pictures they could put up on their phone screens or take with them, or features such as using phones 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 high costs of transferring small amounts of money through banks.

In Zimbabwe, the technology met a stark need.

Thea Fourie, a South Africa-based analyst for independent market analysis firm Global Insight, says scarce goods and high unemployment in Zimbabwe, combined with the planet's highest inflation rate and a parlous economic infrastructure, meant any transfer of money from abroad helps.

President Robert Mugabe's dictatorship is accused by critics globally of ruining what was once an African economic success story with chaotic and often-violent campaigns to seize thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe defends the programme 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.

Fourie says that though some Zimbabweans could be helped by money from abroad, it would have only a "marginal" affect on overall economic performance in Zimbabwe "because the whole problem is so structured around the political aspect".

A spokesman for Zimbuyer.com, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the site's most popular items are cooking oil, soap, rice, meat and mealie meal.

"People are buying power generators a lot because there are regular 20-hour power cuts in Harare now," he said.

The company is run by four Zimbabweans in Britain and the US.

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

In 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available, Zimbabwe had 668000 cellphone subscribers, a penetration rate of 5,6percent - double that for land lines - according to the UN's International Telecommunication Union.

Mukuru.com started in February last year and now has 6500 customers all over the world.

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 have to protect their earnings by keeping them in foreign banks and transferring money only as needed.

Though Mukuru.com began to help Zimbabwean refugees overcome Mugabe's tyranny, it has already started offering its services to South Africans and now plans to branch out into Kenya and Zambia by next month, Malawi by August and Ghana by the end of the year. - Sapa-AP