On a chilly July afternoon in Chitungwiza, a town 25 kilometers from Harare, Tanaka Diza stood in a queue for nearly 20 minutes to withdraw $20 in cash. This was not a queue at an ATM or at the bank. Instead, it was outside a quick-service restaurant where Diza could get cash using Innbucks, an app launched in 2021 by restaurant operator Simbisa Brands to pay back loose change to customers.

“Today, there was a short queue,” Diza told Rest of World. “I think it’s because of the increased popularity of the service. I prefer Innbucks because you can even use it to buy food and get change, and their charges are a bit reasonable.”

Getting back loose change after a purchase is a big challenge in Zimbabwe, as there are no coins and few smaller denomination notes in circulation. To address this issue, traders and retailers would give out sweets, condoms, and coupons in the past. Innbucks was built to solve that challenge at Simbisa’s restaurants, which include the local outlets of Nando’s, Chicken Inn, and Steers.

Over the years, however, InnBucks has become one of Zimbabwe’s most popular fintech platforms. It allows users to load money in dollars, make digital payments, transfer money to other Innbucks users, and even get loans. In 2022, Innbucks received a license through a partnership with Ndoro, a microfinance bank, which allowed it to operate as a deposit-taking financial institution.

The app currently has 1.8 million users, Simbisa CEO Daisy Zinyemba told Rest of World. It ranks as Zimbabwe’s most popular free financial sector app on the Google Play store.

“We offer a wide range of financial products and services, including savings accounts, the mobile wallet, microloans, mobile banking, and value-added services such as airtime,” Zinyemba said. “Users can pay for products and services through our various merchants, send and receive money from loved ones, buy airtime, and soon they will also be able to pay various bills like electricity, school fees, insurance, and many more.”

According to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Innbucks was one of only four financial institutions that reported profits in 2022. As per the central bank report, it has a core capital base of $5.35 million, making it one of the largest financial institutions in the country.

Several Zimbabweans, like 21-year-old Beatrice Kuwengwa, use the Innbucks app to pay their bills and make purchases. “I asked them to credit my change into my Innbucks wallet because I will use it later or send it to someone or buy airtime for myself,” she told Rest of World. “It’s better than being forced to buy something I don’t need from the restaurant because it then means I have spent money I did not want to use.”

700,000The number of Internet banking users in Zimbabwe.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe

Digital wallets are wildly popular in Zimbabwe, where most of the population is currently unbanked. In a country of about 16 million people, only 5.9 million debit cards and fewer than 16,000 credit cards have been issued, according to Zimbabwe’s central bank. There are also fewer than 650,000 Internet banking users in the country. Meanwhile, an estimated 7.1 million mobile wallets are operational in Zimbabwe.

When it comes to digital wallet services, Innbucks has gone beyond Simbisa’s restaurants. “We have Innbucks integrated and as a means of payments for our ride-hailing and delivery service,” Patrick Manyangadze, CEO and founder of ride-hailing and food delivery startup Hwindi, told Rest of World. “Innbucks removes the change issue as users are able to pay exactly what is charged. For us, as a company, we are also able to pay our drivers instantly.”

Innbucks’ deepening reach in the fintech space has led to run-ins with regulators. In April 2022, Zimbabwe’s central bank shut it down over claims that it did not have proper licenses. The ban was lifted four months later after the app was granted a license to operate as a deposit-taking microfinance institution.

Even as platforms like Innbucks — and its main rivals EcoCash and O’Mari — gain popularity in Zimbabwe, experts believe there’s still more work to be done to improve financial inclusion in the country. For instance, the central bank began issuing gold coins in 2022 and also announced a digital currency backed by gold earlier this year. “Agents and merchants must be connected to any of these platforms, and if there are no takers because of barriers such as poor network reach and limited smartphone penetration, then it will result in financial exclusion,” Kinyanjui Mungai, senior research analyst at the Centre for Financial Regulation and Inclusion (Cenfri), told Rest of World. “More needs to be done to boost digital financial inclusion in Zimbabwe and in developing the real economy and supporting businesses.” 

Source: Rest of the World