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Econet phone tokens used as change

WHEN Econet Wireless launched tokens for public phone use in rural Murehwa last year, little did the mobile phone operator know that such an initiative, meant to serve low income earners and desperate public phone users, would find its way to urban centres barely six months after introduction.

While the use of multi-currencies has brought Zimbabwe’s runaway inflation to a halt, the absence of coins after the Reserve Bank was left redundant has left Zimbabweans faced with a shortage of lower denomination coins in circulation.
The product was re-launched in Murehwa in November with a target to cover all under-serviced areas, mostly rural, where some 25 000 units went to the market by December last year. The initial deal, valued at US$1 million, kept Fidelity Printers, a subsidiary of the central bank, running.
Apart from South African coins, Botswana thebes and elusive US quarter dollar coins, retail shops have stepped up their efforts to provide change for customers who cannot settle for less. With banks saying it is costly to import coins, supermarkets have since last February introduced ways to avoid shortchanging customers.
Copper tokens intended for Econet’s YourFone public shops have now become a measure to serve restive customers who demand real change for every transaction made. The tokens worth US20 cents and US50 cents are credited with a minute of talk time and they have become the substitute.
For many Zimbabweans, the coins are reminiscent of the pre-hyperinflation era where a copper cent was the lowest unit and a Zim dollar $5 coin was the highest.
Asked whether the new tokens could be accepted as legal tender, Bankers Association of Zimbabwe president John Mushayavanhu said: “For that you have to seek comment from the central bank, they are the ones who regulate what is legal tenger or not.”
Econet Wireless spokesperson Ranga Mberi said that because of a shortage of smaller denominations of currency for use as change, customers using existing payphone service providers were forced to use up all their credit, or had to forfeit it entirely. “Econet therefore came up with the novel idea to introduce tokens that would be issued specifically in our phone shops as change. These tokens can be used again to purchase Econet products, such as airtime.”
According to Mberi, the tokens are Econet-branded and are not usable outside of Econet products.
“Our dealers are under strict instruction not to abuse the system by distributing tokens beyond their intended use.
“The value of the tokens is, in fact, not linked to any currency, but is determined by the prevailing payphone tariff.”
A visit by businessdigest at some of the country’s largest retailers shows that some shops are dispensing the public phone tokens as change for transactions.
TM Arcadia this week was dispensing two-and-a half minute tokens worth US$0,50 as change.
Before this development, many shops had few choices. For instance one would get sweets, chocolates and small goods such as matches and candles to round off the cash tendered at the point of sale.
At Greencroft Spar in Harare, cashiers credit the change on the till slip, which means that the customer has to keep the slip for future use. The downside of this approach, however was that a customer would lose the slip immediately after transacting.  
Using point of sale purchases was another option employed by supermarkets but, like the previous initiatives, a customer has to pay through the nose for using such a service.
At the launch of public phones in Murehwa, Fidelity Printers CEO Alen Marimbe said his company was ready to mint more tokens for Econet should demand surge
“The real value of the deal depends on the scale at which Econet rolls out its programme to boost demand for the airtime tokens, which would be used as change”, Marimbe said.


Paul Nyakazeya & Bernard Mpofu

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