Harare – The EcoCash City experiment

Stir the pot: Paidamoyo Muzulu

IN the past few months I was amused by NetOne’s innovative advertisement that featured people searching for their simcards nearly everywhere in the home. It was a campaign based on trying to lure many people to register for the OneMoney mobile payment platform — a payment system to rival Cassava’s EcoCash after it experienced a “technical glitch” in November last year, throwing the whole national payment system into panic.

EcoCash handles more than 90% of all mobile money transfers, dwarfing any other financial or tech payment system because it is a service based on the mobile phone with over 10 million active subscribers.

Even government departments and ministers use Econet despite controlling the other two mobile network operators — NetOne and Telecel.

The advert was superb. However, for some fun reason I thought it could be an advertising concept that could well be at home depicting the ubiquitous nature of Econet in most Zimbabweans’ daily lives, especially those who live in the capital Harare.

Last week, at a low-key event probably meant to hide a key development that the MDC-led city was not only subcontracting one of its key functions — refuse collection — but privatising it and without going to tender awarded it to Clean City, a subsidiary of Cassava Smartech. Cassava is an Econet Zimbabwe spinoff company that is registered on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange.

Clean City will be collecting refuse from houses for a fee paid in advance using the EcoCash platform. The development is in its infancy, but one can clearly see that it has a potential to deliver a “clean city” for those with the financial wherewithal — the majority poor working class would be left to live in squalor if they cannot afford making prepayments for the service.

I’m not sure whether it is incompetence or deliberate or both for the city council to fail to regularly collect refuse from residential areas.

On the face of it, refuse collection seems to be one of the easiest services that a city or local authority can give even without a competent administration — it simply needs few serviceable refuse trucks and semi-literate employees to haul the bins. It cannot be easier than that.

However, that failure has created an opportunity that was never there for Econet to fill in the gap — making money from residents’ trash.

Cassava is simply becoming the new city administrators — it has of late started offering services that residents relied on their council to deliver. It launched a public transport system Vaya, a mobile health service Maisha and an emergency ambulance service. These are now operational not only in Harare but nationally.

The company also used a disaster — cholera epidemic in Glen View — to improve its relationship with the city administration and woeful central government.

It fits squarely with what Naomi Klein writes in her book — Disaster Capitalism. Plans are underway for Econet or its subsidiaries to revamp the sewage and water reticulation systems in the south western suburbs of Harare in return for privately running those services.

The city has struggled perennially to consistently supply its residents with potable water, creating a window of opportunity to water merchants who have mushroomed in the capital.

Econet, under its smart city project has adopted First Street Mall, in a new experimental project being implemented all over the world to increase security in urban areas through installation of surveillance cameras in public places to control crime.

As noble as the concept appears, it is also used for mass surveillance. In Johannesburg activists have complained the technology was used to single out their leaders during protests.

However, the most worrying aspect of this initiative is that it is happening in a legal vacuum. There is no law that regulates use of personal data.

“Data is the new oil,” crowed Cassava in its listing prospectus. Outside government, it has the most comprehensive personal data of over 10 million individuals.

It knows who you are, your date of birth, national identity number, where you reside, where you spend your time, where you shop and how much you frequently spend or even your medical condition if you use Maisha.

It even knows what you are studying or reading if you use its Akello/Ruzivo digital educational applications.

Harare, the capital has plunged into the laboratory of privatised public services and it will not be a surprise if most urban councils follow suit soon.

However, the results would not be different to other cities of the same proportion that did the same — creation of the most unequal society — and the contradiction between Johannesburg’s affluent Sandton and squalid Alexandra Park that are only less than two kilometres apart is the most telling.

Welcome to the age of privatisation of public services. The big question is: Are governments necessary in this new age if their new job is simply doling out contracts?

Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist and writes here in his personal capacity.

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