Web 2.0 to the Rescue! Using Web and Text to Beat Shortages in Africa

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The beep-beep of a received text on a mobile phone is now becoming a much-needed lifeline to Africans. Zimbabweans, who continue to struggle every day with inflation that has shot to 3,731 percent (Zimbabwe Central Statistical Office), have usd African ingenuity and 21st century technology to survive another day.

New website services have become a literal lifeline for millions suffering from economic and social hardships. At least four new web-based services have stepped in to link expatriate Zimbabweans working outside the country with their relatives back home. All share a common service: people can log into the websites and shop and select what they like to purchase or transfer to their relativs. Once a purchase has been made, a message is sent by mobile phone text to Zimbabwe, either transferring money credits or credits for fuel, food or medical services.

Mukuru.com is the most elaborate and ambitious of the services, and is expanding across Africa (currently in Zimbabwe and South Africa, it is expanding to Kenya, Malawi and Zambia). Started in 2006, it now boasts 8,000 customers and is averaging 1,200 orders per month, ranging from money transfers to fuel and digital satellite television subscriptions. A voucher number sent by mobile phone also allows the recipient to swap a PIN (personal identification) number for coupons redeemable at certain garages.

One of the great advantages of this new technology is its ability to give real-time updates and tracking throughout the transaction. Senders are informed about every stage of the transaction, right up until the gas is gushing into the car’s tank.

“Basically anybody who is able to work will do their best to support family back home,” said Mukuru’s UK-based Nix Davies. “Mukuru’s birth is the result of our inability to sit back and watch, as well as the desperate need to help those back home. The power of an instant SMS being able to provide value to its recipient is inspiring.

“Launching Mukuru.com has not been without its hurdles,” continues Davies. “Promoting a brand with one foot in the first world and having to deal with third world inconsistencies is always challenging.” Mukuru also has plans to expand into travel, freight, mail (letters are printed out and sent within Zimbabwe), and music to help local musicians.

Over at another website, Zimbuyer.com, expatriate Zimbabweans can buy groceries for their relatives at home and make sure that the money is not spent on the wrong thing.
“They’re a lot of people who left Zimbabwe and, for example, have left their children over there,” a spokesman told the BBC’s website. “But sometimes the money they have sent home for the care of the children is diverted into other things. With our service, people buy the stuff – and we deliver them to the recipients so they know what they’re buying.”

Zimbuyer’s website is similar to food shopping websites in developed countries. Prices are listed in British pounds, but the food items are Zimbabwean staples like sadza maize, Cashel Valley Baked Beans and Ingrame Camphor Cream – all delivered to people living in Harare, Chitungwiza and Bulawayo.Zimbuyer’s most popular products are cooking oil and sugar, while “power generators are proving popular because the electricity always goes off nearly every day.”

Another service is Zimland.com, which has a network of 52 supermarkets nationwide. As it starkly boasts on its website, it gives Zimbabweans abroad “a quick and efficient way of ensuring their families do not starve in Zimbabwe.”

The Zimland Superstore offers a variety of hampers of food and essentials for families, from the Madirativhange to the Mafidhlongo to the Hotch Potch Delux, and boys and girls ‘Back to School’ hampers.

Yet another service has taken on the problem of paying for medical and health services. Beepee Medical Services allows Zimbabweans to pay for doctors’ appointments, prescription drugs and surgery for relatives.

Launched in September 2006 by Dr Brighton Chireka and his wife Prisca, a nurse, the business is small but growing.

“Mostly we’re running it as a service to help people,” said Dr Chireka, adding he gets about two consultation bookings a day (US $30 an appointment). “It should be able to pay for itself… We’ve employed people who are working full-time in Zimbabwe. This side (the UK), it’s on a part-time basis to answer the calls.”

Please visit the following link for more information:

An up-to-date report from The Economist magazine on the country situation in Zimbabwe: www.economist.com

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