The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s Financial Intelligence Unit has been going after anyone and anything it deems a threat to the Zimbabwean dollar (ZWL) to US dollar exchange rates. That’s turning out to be an extensive list that includes alleged saboteurs, street money changers, company executives, bloggers and now mobile network operators. Their crime, apparently is that they sell, airtime scratch cards popular known as “juice” cards. The RBZ’s FIU has ordered mobile network operators to reduce the number of juice cards they sell in order to stop money laundering.

According to the FIU, money changers have been buying airtime vouchers in bulk using RTGS and then selling them in bulk at discounted rates in foreign currency. The dealers then sell this foreign currency on the black market in return for RTGS. They then go to Mobile Network Operators and buy more scratch cards to repeat the cycle.

To stop this the FIU has ordered all mobile network operators to reduce airtime sold through airtime vouchers to only 20% of airtime sold. This shouldn’t be too hard anyway as most people already buy their airtime through mobile money wallets and their banks thanks to extensive cash shortages that persist to this day. Airtime slips sold at point of sales are now limited to $10 000 ZWL per person. And in a bizarre twist, customers are now allowed to cash into their wallets with cash ins now capped at $5 000 ZWL.

A series of arbitrary measures

First of all it is important to acknowledge that the RBZ’s FIU is right. We have noticed the trend where airtime is used to launder money exactly as explained by the FIU. The thing though is that he has been happening for years.

Another thing to note is that it’s not just airtime that’s used this way. Just about every product can be used. Popular items include grocery items such as cooking oil, mealie-meal, bread and tobacco are used to launder money this way. It’s a practice that is impossible to stop. The people who are using airtime this way will just hop onto the next product.

I am also concerned as always by the arbitrary nature of the prescribed measures. For starters who comes up with these amounts of 20%, $10 000 zWL and $5 000 ZWL? There doesn’t appear to be any real logic to it at all. $5 000 ZWL is not enough to buy some elearning/WiFi bundles that people need for work and elearning.

To be fair though it’s unlikely these measures will affect the common man or even the mobile network operators themselves. We have noticed Econet “juice” card shortages in the market for the past two months or so. It seems these cards are expensive to produce and mobile network operators were already phasing them out anyway.

And as pointed most people use mobile wallets and bank accounts to recharge so not a big deal. Will this stop money laundering? It will stop people from using airtime cards to launder money but there are so many products that can be used to do this dealers will probably just shrug and move on to the next thing.