Black Market SIM Cards Turned a Zimbabwean Border Town Into a Remote Work Hub

Zimbabwe’s mobile data is so expensive, people have to rely on a signal from the next country over, Mozambique. Rest of World: Econet and NetOne had a combined 94.5% market share at the end of 2020, according to the national telecomms regulator. Analysts say that the lack of competition, combined with the high cost of running a telecomms business in Zimbabwe — due to import tariffs on communications equipment, foreign currency risk, and weak infrastructure — has kept prices high for consumers. “Poor collateral infrastructure, like electricity, dissuades telecomms investment and [means] fewer players, which leads to higher costs,” Arthur Gwagwa, a leading Zimbabwe telecomms expert and lawyer, told Rest of World. The cripplingly high cost of internet access has slowed adoption of digital services by individuals and businesses and prevented Zimbabweans from accessing educational materials and health services online, Gwagwa said.

But for people living near the border with Mozambique, there is a workaround. Enterprising traders cross over on foot or on motorbikes, bulk-buy Movitel SIM cards, and return to Chimanimani, where they distribute the SIMs to supermarkets and corner shops, where they are sold with a markup of more than 50%. The availability of affordable internet has made the unfashionable rural district into an attractive destination for people who need to be online for work. The area was hit by a tropical cyclone in 2019, which displaced more than 11,000 people in Chimanimani alone, bringing hundreds of NGO and health workers to the area to work on the relief. Many have stayed, taking advantage of the cheap internet access to work remotely. […] Nollen Singo, founder of NGO Orphans Dreams, which gives free math lessons to children orphaned by the cyclone, said that he’s been able to stay in the region because the cheap internet allows him to connect to free education apps that can be used in the classroom. “It’s so helpful being able to access Khan Academy maths app or Buzzmath app online and tutor local orphaned kids,” Singo said.

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