Zimbabwean consumers find themselves stuck in a paradox. Also known as antimony, a paradox is a self-conflicting reality that goes against the logical outcome expected from a scenario.
Digital payment systems were sold by proponents as the magic wand which will bring convenience to the transacting public. Catchphrases like, “pay as you go,” “from the comfort of your home,” and other neatly crafted words were elected to ensure buy-in.
Customers, who in conventional businesses are considered to be kings, felt this was a way to better their experiences. Little did they know!
By looking at how Zimbabwean customers are vulnerable in the hands of brands, one would wonder if digital payment systems and good service are mutually exclusive. Zimbabweans have been reduced to the point of begging to spend their money, elsewhere in the world, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction.
Corporations anywhere else in the world do the best they can to ensure there is very little that stands between their product and the customer, those in Zimbabwe sing with a different tune. In a supermarket, even after braving the high costs of commodities, one still has to negotiate hurdles in finding out if their preferred method of payment is accepted.
There is no uniformity, it is like the market has mood swings. On one day, mobile money will be working at the expense of bank cards, on another day both systems will be down, with the words “system is down,” being a template elected by the service provider in expressing regret.
The regret that sometimes is rudely delivered. Our local currency has been bastardized under the watch of authorities, who beyond issuing statements, have not shown any serious intent to deal with issues.
The biggest elephant in the room is the three-tier pricing system, which is criminal by any definition. It has been in existence in Zimbabwe since the introduction of bond notes and coins. Unless those from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (the financial services regulator) are out of touch, they cannot claim not to know where the three-tier pricing system is in effect.
Under this three-tier system, early adopters of the cashless society concept are punished at the expense of slow adopters. It costs more to buy goods and pay for services through anything that is not cash.
This is why the conversation about the cashless Zimbabwean economy has at best been rhetoric.
Plastic money and digital payment systems are a tough sell when there is a clear bias against them in retailers, both informal and formal.
Almost all big retailers have queues reserved strictly for those buying with cash, these queues move fast while those that have swipe and mobile money are nightmarish.
But the unpopularity of digital payment systems among Zimbabweans is not the fault of retailers though, by any measure. The digital payment service providers themselves are the reason behind the lack of confidence in their products.
As a result, bank queues are not growing any shorter at a time it should be an embarrassment to stand in a queue for money. Across the board, all systems are unstable.
It is near impossible to fully trust the systems in the Zimbabwean financial service to be working at any given time. How difficult is it to keep systems online? It appears Zimbabwean banks and mobile network operators struggle with this mundane industrial requirement.
As I mentioned earlier, customer service is no longer a high ranking priority in this industry, they are probably banking on the fact that people have few alternatives. Hopefully, the Zimbabwean transacting public will be brave enough to remember who was treating them with contempt in their times of need, especially brands that act like they are larger than life.
No one should have a guaranteed market share, it should be fluid, that way corporations avoid complacent behaviour. There should be regulatory instruments to remind digital payment service providers that the money they preside over is not theirs and belongs to the people.
What if there are fines for every hour a banking system (mobile or conventional) is said to be down?
If the customers are unable to act, authorities have to chip in because it is hard to even use a bit of coercive persuasion for people to adopt plastic money, you cannot push people towards a dysfunctional system.
But before authorities, especially Government, thinks of finding ways to encourage use of multiple payment systems in equal measure, they should set a good precedent. All Government departments should unreservedly accept all forms of payment; this will provide moral basis for them to order all other businesses to do the same.
In some instances, ZUPCO buses refuse their own commissioned tap cards which disadvantages prepaid passengers. Unless something is done, the growth in plastic money usage will remain a pipe dream, enunciated only at official events as part of keynote speeches.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has two jobs; firstly, it should ensure there is more cash supplied as per their promise when they said there will be more cash supply.
This will ensure there is little room for the commodification of cash by those who seek to avoid inconveniences, thereby reducing, if not eradicating premiums to access cash.
But perhaps there is need to review how much people get from ATMs, the $300 withdrawal limit may not be enough in an economy where those who fail to catch subsidised transport are spending $20 daily.
After making cash available, the RBZ should ensure there is a form of commitment towards making digital payment systems stable.
This should be followed by regulations which make it criminal for registered businesses to refuse other modes of payment. There is sentiment that these traders and businesses will be trying to avoid the 2 percent tax which was introduced on transactions.
Technically speaking, some businesses are trying to evade tax by demanding cash, placing the burden on the public when they pay premiums for cash on the streets.
Something must be done.
After mobile money and banks get their houses in order, accepting all modes of payment should be an operational prerequisite for businesses, especially transport services. There should not be resistance from any business, unless if they are not well-meaning.
Mobile money uptake can be grown, but there is a need to bring back the power to the customer regardless of the mode of payment they have. Only then can we ask why people still queue for money.