Jul 062009

Zimbabwe, six months later…
I took another trip to Zimbabwe last week to meet with a number of people about a voucher programme for African Enterprise Partners’ first investee, Mobile Transactions.

The difference in Zimbabwe from the last time I was here six month ago is palpable. And the country is, quite simply, beautiful. It’s not the water world that Uganda is, but it’s well-appointed with water and could quite easily take its place back as the Breadbasket of Africa.

Why on earth was I tempting cholera and fuel shortages in order to go to Harare now, in the middle of winter (without even a proper jacket– it was about 8 degrees Centigrade)? Mobile Transactions has been developing a electronic voucher product that could be of huge use in agricultural subsidies, which can help support and grow markets rather than undercutting local businesses with subsidised imports. The problem with vouchers is the liquidity issue– shops need to purchase inputs and then collect vouchers to get paid for them– which may take months. With an electronic account, distributors can be credited instantly– and the voucher scheme operators get to monitor the usage of their vouchers in real-time, adapting the program as they see fit and as needs are required, including running different types of vouchers in different areas.

The trip
TIA did rear its head, a bit. Our assistant didn’t get the proper paperwork to export our vehicle in time, so we couldn’t drive across the border (we were a bit concerned as the fuel in the tank was *probably* just enough to get us to Harare and back to the border. Loads of people sell fuel– potentially cut with water, cooking oil, or whatever– near the border but we would only risk it if required.

We decided to go ahead and cross “by foot” as they say, and hire a taxi on the Zim side. The only issue– no taxis. Busses would leave from Lusaka but wouldn’t stop at the border. We were advised that hitching was our only option.

The very nice official, however, who issued us our visas told us to talk to his friend the guard at the exit gate, who hooked us up with a truck (labeled of course “no unauthorised passengers”) who took us to Harare for $10US, getting us there just in time for our meeting.

Zim’s been switched to US Dollars, although South African Rands, British Pounds, Euros, and Botswanan Pula are widely accepted. Prices are quoted in dollars and change (if any) will be given in Rands or Pula.

Prices have actually stabilised a bit– The latest inflation figures I’ve seen put it at -1%.

Things aren’t all rosy, however. Huge settling has happened in the economy which is good, but the outlook is bleak, if tinged with a bit of hope. Just a bit, though. The general sense is that things are going to get better, but not after they get a bit worse.

Stores are closed. Fuel lines are common (though less so a couple of months ago)– Americans who remember the fuel crisis in the 70s may recognise this:

That’s a filling station on the left, and a huge queue for a minibus in front.

What next?
We exited the country after a single 2 hour meeting, twenty-nine and one half hours after entering. Even for me an dmy ridiculous amount of travel, this is a new record (the previous was about 50 hours in Kenya).

Mobile Transactions thinks that there’s huge potential in Zimbabwe: It’s got smart, driven people, and a desperate need for liquidity. It’ll be a while before Mobile Transactions can perform its core business, but MT are keen on and hopeful that they may be able to run their voucher programme and reduce transaction costs rather significantly.

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 Posted by at 07:20

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