The despairing state of ecommerce in Zimbabwe

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I have been following with much enthusiasm articles and debates generated thereof on the Techzim blog as it pertains to Internet usage in Zimbabwe. Not only being passionate about it, but also having done some considerable project work and brainstorming on this subject even in the early days of the Internet in Zimbabwe as far back as 2000. I feel a pressing need to make my own personal contribution to this ongoing discussion about Internet usage in Zimbabwe.

It is apparent that only in the last few years of mobile 3G Internet – that many Zimbabweans young and older have began having a real encounter with the Internet. In fact, the growth of Facebook and the general explosion of social networking is well worth conferring due credit for the growth in Internet usage and experimentation by a growing number Zimbabweans. In as much as we are enjoying the current unprecedented growth in Internet usage locally, I feel there is still a substantial ingredient that is missing. Herein lies my lamentation.

Hitherto, our interest in the Internet appears to have been driven by outside forces more than a locally generated appreciation of what the Internet can do within our own context particularly in commercial terms. Suffice to say, this has arguably spurred us to a point where we need to now shape and inculcate our own local commercial Internet culture. This is the missing ingredient. A locally inspired commercial purposeful use of the Internet. Thus far, Zimbabweans have associated the Internet with Facebook/social networking, Google search, the Herald online and so on.

Make no mistake there is nothing wrong with this type of Internet engross. The fact and the point here is we really need something more than this. The Internet is more than a social loop. It is also a commercial gem that can change an entire generation. No need for evidence here; needless to say we have countless examples of young Internet multi-millionaires all across the world. There are certainly thousands upon thousands more who have made a fortune because of the Internet.

To put things in context and prepare you for were I’m going with this, I see a need to remind that in the early days of the Internet in America this now indispensible tool was initially viewed primarily as a means to speed up communication and a mine for information. True. However, no sooner did its commercial value become a reality than we saw the emergence of sites such as eBay, Amazon and so on. These start-ups transformed the entire concept of the known Internet world. I would venture further and say all manner of start-ups that we have had on the Internet in the last decade and some change have become a reality because of this important fact – that the Internet has commercial value.


I did argue that on the most part, many Internet users in Zimbabwe still view this medium as a source of information and social interaction/networking more than it is a means to a new commercial reality. This is true for business let alone government. Even though we talk about the commercial potential of the Internet at different fora be it government or business, we somehow seem to never get to the nuts and bolts of pursuing this commercial reality to its logical and necessary conclusion.

It sure seems as if everyone is waiting for someone, somewhere, somehow to do it someday. Many business and government leaders time and again refer to this potential of the Internet in its limited and rather primitive form in the context of its ability to help search for quotations of products and services. Rest assured, that is as far as it goes. Even though this is valuable, I would say this had absolute value back in 1999/2000. What about going further than searching for quotations and addresses and actually making the purchase and having your order delivered to your door/downloaded? We are painfully still in the shallow end.

I have had an opportunity to study countries were ecommerce has taken off. One common thread running through these economies is the existence of at least one local vibrant ecommerce site. This is true in South Africa – Kalahari, etc – it is also true in France –, etc  – it is also so in India –, etc – it is so in Kenya – (which happened to have recently receive a $50k grant from Kenyan government to boost their business) and many other countries for lack of time and perhaps space. I consider this to be THE main ingredient and gateway to a popular ecommerce culture.

I am aware that in Zimbabwe we have and The former is perhaps the most visited site in Zimbabwe excluding the news sites, currently. Well, fair enough and a job well done but it doesn’t do much in as far as ecommerce of the magnitude of our proposition here is concerned. We need something that involves money. By this I mean actual online transacting. I say money because when money is transacted successfully and goods/services are delivered long lasting confidence is cultivated in the process. It only takes the involvement of money to gain the necessary public trust in online dealings or any related service. Think about the kind of confidence that many people are steadily gaining with Ecocash.

Business and government have a tremendous responsibility to demonstrate to folks that the Internet works; that you can make an online purchase and have your order honestly fulfilled. This is important in popularizing the ecommerce culture among ordinary Zimbabweans. I doubt if a classifieds site as good as it may be will be able to bring about this culture – the ecommerce culture.  No, not until money and goods/services successfully exchange hands on such a platform. In my considered view a classifieds site of the type we have represents important but insufficient baby steps to a greater ecommerce reality.

This might not be farfetched and certainly apparent to many that our undoing has been in doing things in a disarticulated manner. Hopefully, the latest and much talked about ICT policy in the making will properly and purposefully position all key players in their respective roles. There is need to realize that we all have a dog in this hunt. Therefore, each player has to do what they need to do.

As stimuli, government through financial regulation must spearhead and encourage credit/debit card processing in our local context. The current levels of innovation and enthusiasm among our young developers as reported here on Techzim allows for even the unbanked to participate in ecommerce activity. This has been the strength of the South African ecommerce scene – the supportive banks coupled with certain initiatives e.g. eBucks and so on.

We also need an independent credible statistics gathering process of actual Internet usage that investors can rely on. This is important. As I see it no one really has a credible position on Internet usage statistics in Zimbabwe. Most data is inferred. Through this inference we however can still tell that we have the critical mass necessary to start the ball rolling; we nevertheless need actual numbers that investors can rely on. Am aware of some regular surveys that are done by certain private institutions; but again these surveys are done by heavily interested parties and may for some reason fail to reflect the true facts. We know there has already been controversy around these surveys.

Government has the ability to introduce mandatory local online advertising spending for ad agencies and companies, as a proposition. Even if ad agencies and companies of a certain revenue size were required to spend say 8% of their annual advertising budget online locally, this would perhaps be enough to spur activity in the local online sector. All kinds of ideas would likely blossom as there would be pay day to look forward to through advertising revenue for those new start-ups. The overall effect is increased purposeful investment in this sector which has major gains on the overall economy going into the future.

Aurther Shoko is an ICT4D enthusiast, Internet marketer and search engine optimization (SEO) specialist and runs an Internet company, BigInternet Holdings (Pvt) Ltd, from Harare.


  1. Christian says:

    Its the end of the month, John received his payslip yesterday, so he goes to the bank very early in the morning to avoid long queues. John arrives their before the bank is open, John has an ATM card, but it doesn’t occur to him that he can get his money from the ATM outside the bank so he waits for the bank to open. Its 8 o’clock the bank opens, John waits inline until he gets his money. after that John goes straight to the supermarket to buy groceries for his family, and right at the till there is a big sign that says ATM CARDS ACCEPTED HERE, the funny thing is that John has been going to the same supermarket for years but it has never occurred to him to skip going to the bank and just go straight to the supermarket and buy his groceries using his ATM card and as an added bonus he could also get cash for kombi by using the cash back facility at the supermarket. The moral of the story, for e-commerce to ever become a thing in Zim, we need to get the concept of plastic money moving first and who better to start this than the banks.

    1. Tapiwa ✔ says:

      Perhaps John skips the ATM because of it’s ridiculously low, yet somewhat arbitrary withdrawal limit. John is also aware of the usurious rates charged by banks per transaction, were he to use Point of Sale machines every time he goes shopping. Moral of the story: John is a clever man, and the banks overcharge.

  2. Prosper Chikomo says:

    Zimbabwe is way ahead of just being ready for e-commerce. To avoid writing a long post, i will write an article bout this in the coming weeks. Don’t underestimate Zimbabweans just because folks like eTranzact have done nothing since 2004 eTranzact launched.

    And remember, Mastercard only came back now and most VISA cards were not enabled for online payments.

    But i will tell you that every Zimbabwean who knows Jack Bauer (24) knows that there is all over the world people use cards to buy online.

    And many Zimbabweans would really want to buy “Amercan-style” (just like the Americans do)

    1. Christian says:

      As a social experiment, go to any CABS or POSB branch on a civil servants pay day and ask folks standing in queues who Jack Bauer is?

      1. Prosper Chikomo says:

        Why don’t you yourself go and do that since you are the one who is assuming civil servants who banks with CABS and POSB do not know Jack Bauer

        1. Jack Flowers says:

          I’m done talking with you, you understand me? You’ve read my file. The
          first thing I’m going to do is take out your right eye, and then I’m
          gonna move over and take out your left, and then I’m going to cut you.
          I’m gonna keep cutting you until you give me the information that I
          need. Do you understand me? So for the last time, when is the bank opening?

  3. Esau J. M. says:

    I think Zimbabwe has all the building blocks that support convergence
    into a successful e-culture. We still have fairly good road
    infrastructure that can be modernized with the right mix of resource
    allocation and political will – the broadband infrastructural
    development project is a key development for the country (for wider
    internet access); we have a healthy competition in the telco arena, which has already produced great results for easy access to cellphone usage nationwide, and
    the promise that this brings in areas such as e-banking; though we have
    some problems, our banking system is fairly well organized and
    modernized, just requiring creativity for wider access into rural
    Zimbabwe; and more importantly, we have a well educated young population ready and hungry for access and daily usage of the internet.

    There are a few key things that we could do as practical measures for building a general e-culture – I will mention just two:

    1) A long term vision is required to see the creation of an e-culture
    that extends to primary education and promotes ICT use at an early age.

    2) At the same time, entrepreneurship should be integrated into
    secondary level education curriculum, and supported by other related
    tertiary activities at the post secondary level.

    Developing an entrepreneurial culture is a long term strategy that will
    help create citizens who see problems in terms of opportunities for
    business. Entrepreneurs have an opportunity orientation that leads them
    to see the possibilities and to think in terms of how they can get
    something done, rather than seeing the problems and thinking of excuses
    why they can’t. Entrepreneurs have to develop a skin for the pursuit of
    opportunity without regards to resources currently controlled. If we
    place resources towards building entrepreneurial minds, we will create
    citizens who search for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an

  4. Scrooge McDuck says:

    Ah, but with the history of banking in Zimbabwe as it is, it might be a tough sell to get John to leave his money in the bank longer than a day. It might take a while before we see the kind of sustained deposits/credit that will sustain ecommerce. The next move is indeed the banking industry’s to make.

    1. Christian says:

      Scrooge, your are very right for e-commerce to work, people must have money in their accounts and as it is people just don’t trust the banks.

    2. Prosper Chikomo says:

      @ce7b0189e872d266a4e4f0cc5462a618:disqus , I know many people who buy online but do not keep even a dime in the bank.

      Folks load a card with the cash they take from under their trusted pillow and spend it all online. Basically, loading a prepaid card with exactly what they want to spend.

      A bank account balance above $0, even it be $20 000, does not translate into ecommerce potential.

      You really don’t need to have money in your bank account to buy online. A
      prepaid FBC Mastercard does not require you to have a bank account with

      1. Scrooge McDuck says:

        Nice, learned something new. For some reason I only associated the whole prepaid thing with NFC enabled phones (I blame ZBC & Japan Video Topics) and have been waiting years for this tech to pop up here!

  5. Tapiwa ✔ says:

    @Aurther You can’t have e-commerce (or any form of commerce) without payment. In the developed world, this is a mostly-solved problem (via credit cards); not so much in Zimbabwe. If e-commerce is to blossom, step 1 would be to solve payment.

    I wouldn’t look to the banks for a solution though, they are barely figuring out the whole internet thing. Unfortunately our banking laws are depressingly 20th century, it would be impossible for any non-bank actor to solve this. I hate to be “that guy”, but I’m not holding my breath – not even for EcoCash/TN Bank. I think EcoCash will be internet-enabled at around the same time every Zimbabwean gets a credit card with their bank account.

  6. Developer says:

    I have said this before and i will say it again. For any internet start-up to be successful in Zimbabwe, it needs the support of big companies and Media, in the form of advertising, sponsorship and free coverage (media). Any start-up needs someone to bail it out for the first few months of operation and in our Zim context, most of these startups have noone to bail them, hence they die a natural death, along with their excellent ideas and products.

    And for the “established” guys like eTransact and ZimSwitch….I have no kind words for them. they r letting us down a million times. They lack creativity, they don’t want to take risks and they have no vision!! Here is what I feel can save Zim:

    1). We need something like South Africa’s Payfast ( Its a payment system that simplifies a lot of challenges locally, especially for internet Start-ups.

    2). Big companies should come to the party and support star-tups, be it in eCommerce, or any other sector in our economy.

    3). We need a national programme to educate people about eCommerce. This could be Gvt driven or NGO-funded. You will be shocked if u put all Zim Banks’s MDs and CEOs in a room and ask them how much they know about eCommerce and the internet in general. I say so cse I work in a Bank, supporting eCommerce infrastructure & products. The point is, if the leaders dont know these things, how then can we, as a nation, drive the change we need?

    4). Banks need to start acting as responsible institutions, that give people a reason to deposit their hard cash and use plastic money and electronic funds transfers. The gvt also needs to introduce measures that curb this reliance on hard cash.

    5. Zimbabweans in general suffer from a syndrome called “Analysis Paralysis”, where we tend to enjoy criticising that supporting other pipo’s ideas. We, as a nation, should move away from that stupid culture. If u think i am blabbing, just propose any idea to 10 pipo u know and see what i am talking about. 7 will shoot u down and of the 3 that support it, none will put action to their words, so in the end u r on ur own.

    6. Zimbabweans r too engrossed in looking for the next dollar to the extent we have no time to sit down and be creative beyond tomorrow. That has to change if we want to drive Zim forward. Sometime we think so hard till we forget the basics. How many in this forum know that you can EASILY make Diesel (yes diesel) and Methane from plastic you pick from the dumping grounds? Google it or see videos on Youtube.

  7. Tendekai Muchenje says:

    What would be the challenges with this approach?

    1) First build a robust standalone system, that skips the card networks, the banks and the mobile operators. User adoption is not a priority at this stage, most likely you would have trust issues.

    2) Expand your base framework to make it an ecosystem by actually building API for merchants and businesses. Users still not the top priority at this stage.

    3) Slowly but surely pursue integrations with the semi-online players like Ecocash and all those other guys. It will take a while, but once done, users will probably come in.

  8. Munya Bloggo says:

    The mere fact that we are having this discussion is a sign of our readiness. Let’s revive this topic in light of recent developments. I think instead of contemplating about lets come together and build these platforms that we are saying someone else should build….Mr Techzim call these brilliant minds together for a hackathon, 1 day lots of coffee and see if we can’t crack the problem together!!!!!!!!

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