How the war on Mobile Money Agents by the Buea Council exemplifies the effects of a failed system of governance




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About a month and 2 weeks ago, I ventured into a new business as and MTN Mobile Money agent. Basically, Mobile Money Agents sign a deal with MTN to provide the mobile money service to customers in exchange for commissions earned as a percentage of the volume of transactions. There is a simple reason why I decided to get into the business. It is relatively non-capital intensive and risk free. Sure, to be an effective agent, you need a significant amount of capital (at least 250,000 CFA to even become one before you think about a location and liquid cash), but as a miniature financial institution, the risk is very limited. Except you are robbed or fire burns all your cash, you should have at least all your initial capital if you chose to close the business. There are no risky purchases that may be subject to spoilage or depreciation.



Mobile money has changed the financial landscape in Cameroon. Although the market still exists and the expansion and uptake of services is relatively slow, the potential still remains huge especially as very few people can afford the costs of owning a bank account or credit card and as banks have been known to treat people very badly in recent times. The effects of mobile money are mostly positive. First of all, it has created hundreds of new jobs for young people and has greatly increased the speed and effectiveness of money transfer. Prior to this, money transfer was basically a dual monopoly of two companies; Express Union and Express Exchange who always promised transactions in three minutes or less but have been averaging 15 to 30 minutes for most transactions. These two companies had enjoyed the monopoly so much that people were in dire need of a reasonable alternative. In contrast, a mobile money transaction averages two minutes. There are no forms to fill and it is relatively straightforward. As opposed to banks, mobile money customers keep their money themselves, in electronic form, and have access to it 24/7. They do not need any permission to have access to their money and can pretty much decide what to do and not do with their money with absolutely no interference. An increasing number of goods and service providers now accept payments by mobile money. This ranges from companies such as ENEO with partnership agreements, to local bars and restaurants.



The value mobile money revolution does not only lie in the way it has made life easy for people and provided a means for people to have a greater say over their money than financial institutions provide, such value is equally reflected in the number of new jobs that have been created as a result. In Buea alone, this is an estimated 200 to 300 jobs and counting. Although I am relatively new and small in the business, I already employ two other persons. Everything else aside, I value the mobile money revolution for this single reason; giving young people a chance to make ends meet at a time when the unemployment rate is insane.

That is as far as the good news goes because on the other end, there exists some people who either do not appreciate the change mobile money and money agents have brought to people’s lives or are just making use of the state of lawlessness to make life miserable for mobile money agents. The root of the problem appears to be that, like most new economic activities, the mobile money agent sector has not yet been organized through text. This lack of text has given room for supposed agents of the Buea Council to harass mobile money agents with the aim of extracting as much money as they can from them.



As a new person in the business, I had been to the Buea council to find out what needs to be done to regularize the business. I was told the sector is being overseen by the appropriations office, Unfortunately, I did not visit the office immediately for other reasons. It was not long before three men showed up to seal my business without identifying themselves. They kept talking about how mobile money agents are giving them a hard time. I listened calmly and then told them I had been to the council and was told I have to go to the appropriations office. These men told me there is nothing like appropriations office at the council. I was shocked, but considering what I stood to lose if they sealed my business even for half a day, I told them I was ready to negotiate with them. The leader told me I should go to a certain office beside the court the next day and that they must seal the place. I asked my employee to step out and they sealed it. With doubts in my mind, I rushed to the council to ask questions and was sent to an employee of the appropriations office who explained that the council had hired a contractor to take care of mobile money agents and that they receive 300,000 CFA per mobile money agent per year. He however said I could pay in 2 installments. While it sounded so outrageous to pay 300,000 CFA for a business of 500,000 CFA capital, I handed him part of the money to ensure that my place I open the next day for business. One reason I did this is because I have concern for my employees. I am basically their source of livelihood now and it would be cruel to take that away from them at this time. That unfortunately means nothing to the council who seem to be out to exploit the situation to screw young people and send them back to the jobless market which has been created by their corrupt administration in Yaoundé, with their assistance of course.



In this situation, MTN has little or nothing to say, the elected leaders of the council who are supposed to protect the people are the ones screwing them and no one is able to stand up for the little guy. At worst, this sector needs to be regularized so people venturing into it know what exactly they are signing up for. In addition, it should not be normal for anyone to show up on another person’s property and without identification or written authorization, proceed to seal the property and prevent them from going on with their activities.

On the bottom line, this is the situation we have grown accustomed to. It is the birth child of the incompetent administration of the last 30+ years which has basically reduced us to a state of lawlessness and non-accountability with the French man’s laissez-faire attitude. We have adopted it gladly and the result is a few privileged ones among us make use of the situation to make life miserable for the rest of us.

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