Hookers make EcoCash their first choice payment option

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Sitting on the edge of a bed, Zimbabwean sex worker Locardia Ncube explains why clients now often pay her in mobile money rather than hard cash.

“It’s increasing because it’s easier,” says the 26-year-old, wearing a tight white dress. “If he doesn’t have cash, he just sends the money. There’s no problem with that. I will go to collect it tomorrow.”

Ncube is among growing numbers of women and girls caught in the economy’s downward spiral and forced to turn to sex work, which is illegal in Zimbabwe. She charges as little as $10 per session in a down-at-heel flat she rents with four other women plying the same trade in central Harare.

Meanwhile, the streets of the capital are dotted with the logo of EcoCash, the southern African nation’s most popular payment service on mobile phones. Its 15,000 agents nationwide can convert credit sent to phones into US dollars – adopted as Zimbabwe’s favoured currency in 2009, following record hyperinflation – and vice versa.

With formal sector unemployment at 90%, many people in the informal economy make use of EcoCash and sex workers are no exception, with some carrying multiple phones. “If I’ve got 20, 30 or 50 bucks and I’m not going to use it, I will put it in EcoCash,” says Ncube. “Even if someone steals my bag, I will open my mobile wallet tomorrow and the money will still be there.”

Ncube knows the importance of security from bitter experience. She says in 2011 she was hauled out of a taxi, held down on a bridge, stripped naked and gang-raped by men who did not use a condom and were never caught. On another occasion, a client refused to pay, stole Ncube’s purse and used a taser on her arm. “I started begging, ‘I don’t do this for fun. Don’t kill me please.’ I thought I was going to die.”

She had taken up sex work at the age of 21 after being abandoned with two children when her husband moved to South Africa and severed all links. Now she works in a shabby room with bare lightbulb, sagging blue and white curtains, an old TV, a bed with no headboard and two polaroid photos stuck to a grubby white wall. EcoCash is helping but not yet having a significant impact on her average earnings of $30 to $40 a day.

She has to pay monthly bills of $90 (£58) for her share of the flat, $180 for her home in a township, $60 for a nanny to take care of her 11-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter and $100 on food. She must also cover school fees of $55 per child per term. Then there is the cost of bribing the police – for whom cash is still king.

“They are our friends. We’ve got to know them. Sometimes they come and we say, ‘Sekuru (uncle), for now we have nothing.’ They say, ‘OK, we’ll leave you for now and come back later’. Later I’ll give them five bucks. If I don’t have anything, I’ll go to the station and pay 20. If I still don’t have anything, I’ll go to the cells.”

Ncube’s flatmates also use mobile money but say it is largely for the clients’ convenience rather than their own. Tendai Mambo, 29, a single mother wearing a leopard skin pattern blouse and gold necklace, remarks: “Some pay cash, some pay EcoCash. Some say they want a ‘short time’ for $10 but don’t have money in their pocket, only in their phone. You just give your number so they can transfer $11 because there is a $1 charge for it.”

EcoCash gives clients an added sense of security, she adds. “A woman can meet a client and say $10, let’s go to her place. Then she can claim, ‘You fucked me, I sucked your dick, give me $200’. She can threaten to make a deal with the police or say, ‘I’ll make a call and you’ll be in the paper tomorrow.’ The guy thinks his wife will see it. But if they agree $10 and it’s in the phone, he can show it to the police tomorrow. There is proof.”

In May Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s biggest mobile operator, launched the EcoCash Savings Club, a product to support savings groups across the country. But few sex workers can afford to save in the present economic climate as they struggle merely to make ends meet. Rebecca Mataira, 34, is another single mother who took up the trade three months ago to cover rent and school fees.

“I haven’t told my family,” she admits sadly. “I tell them I’m going to South Africa to work. It’s bad but there’s no way out. I would prefer cash to mobile but it’s better than nothing. At least if you’re hunted by the cops, there’s no proof of transaction in terms of hard currency.”

Officials warn of a surge in sex work in Zimbabwe and express surprise at the swift integration of mobile money. Jessie Majome, a former deputy minister of women’s affairs, says: “There are children doing sex work. It’s a terrible phenomenon. We talk of the economic collapse of Zimbabwe in GDP and dollars but we don’t talk about it in lives and hopes. This is the worst effect of Zimbabwe’s economic decline. We have whole armies of girls who are selling their bodies.”

Told about their use of EcoCash, Majome replies: “Wow. Hi-tech sex work. I’m struck how early they’ve adapted to that. I’m also worried about whether this is applied to preventing HIV/ Aids. I wonder if that scientific way of thinking has pervaded their practices, but I doubt that. I fear there’s a total mismatch. Testing and condoms should be part of the same scientific approach.”

The Guardian visited two Econet Wireless offices in Harare, made phone calls and sent emails but the company did not respond.