The prevailing cash shortages have suffocated mobile money subscribers, who are failing to get their money or do cash-out transactions.
The crisis, which now makes it almost impossible for subscribers to make cash-out transactions even for as little as $5, is a setback to the financial inclusion plan. Mobile money was touted as the key driver to financial inclusion by virtue of its wide network coverage.
A survey conducted by Standardbusiness last week revealed that customers were failing to cash out money they would have received through the mobile money platform as the agents did not have cash to disburse to customers.
A mobile money agent named Peter (not his real name), said his business, like any other business, was affected by the cash challenges prevailing in the country.
"The net effect of that is that it affects our commission because the more transactions that one does, the more the agent earns. Yes, there are some agents who are now double charging customers $2 for every $100 withdrawn in addition to the cash-out charge. So for every $100 cashed out, one is charged $5. This has been happening with EcoCash agents only because they are the ones with a wider network coverage. It's illegal to double charge clients but if customers resist that, they will not be able to access the cash," Peter said
He said that some agents that were connected had become cash barons, selling cash to desperate Zimbabweans.
Standardbusiness heard that support banks which included Steward Bank used to give EcoCash agents cash but they had since stopped as some of the agents were "spinning" the cash and not taking it back to the banks.
"The agents were getting cash from the bank but they were not depositing the money back. They would do Real Time Gross Settlement transfers to their agent accounts and then collect the cash as if they wanted to serve clients and yet they would go on to sell the money to other people," the source said.
In the past, a support bank branch could disburse as much as $300 000 a day to agents.
People in the rural areas have been hardest hit, amid claims that agents were giving subscribers part of their money in the form of groceries.
Econet Wireless Zimbabwe spokesperson Lovemore Nyatsine said the liquidity constraints in the country had not spared the mobile money transfer sector, but said he was not aware that some agents were putting an extra charge on subscribers who wanted to make cash-out transactions.
"Our customers are automatically charged displayed applicable tariffs only, regardless of the cash limitations. All agents have strict operating guidelines that they must adhere to and they sign contracts with clear penalties for any activities which are illegal. We take any malpractices seriously to protect our customers," he said in responses to inquiries by Standardbusiness.
Nyatsine could not disclose how much money was given to agents by support banks.
"Although it is the responsibility of agents to ensure that their agency business is liquid, EcoCash and the Econet Group are playing an active role to link agents with the core support banks for liquidity support. Steward bank offers low cost float loans to EcoCash agents and this offering has always assisted agents in remaining liquid."
Nyatsine said Econet would continue partnering with local companies and retailers who appreciated the benefit of using EcoCash merchants.
"... we continue investing in appropriate technologies that lessen the reliance on cash for day-to-day transactions like POS [point of sale] machines and other electronic platforms."
Telecel Zimbabwe Public Relations, Corporate Social Responsibility manager Francis Chimanda said the company accessed cash from banks subject to availability. He said the daily withdrawal limit was too low to service its wide agency network.
"Due to the nationwide cash shortages, our agents are struggling to access cash from the affiliate banks to rebalance their float levels. In the event that they do get cash, the withdrawal limits are also a hindrance as they do not provide enough cash for agents to run our service. In addition, the balance between cash-ins and cash-outs is lopsided, hence the need to constantly approach the banks for cash," Chimanda said.
He said the continual unavailability of cash should push subscribers to embrace a "cashless society" using debit cards, pay merchants via the platform, pay bills and pay each other via the platform without handling physical cash.
Zimbabwe has been grappling with cash shortages since the beginning of the year. Bank queues have become a common feature at most banks, forcing most of them to place a $100 limit on withdrawals. The crisis has also resulted in the disappearance of big denomination notes like the $100 note.
RBZ has come up with measures that include reducing bank charges to drive the usage of plastic money.
Mobile money subscriptions during the first quarter of this year stood at 8 061 443, indicating a 9,93% increase from 7 333 388 for the quarter ended December 2015.