‘Econet stole my idea’

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econetEconet Wireless is likely to face a lawsuit after reportedly hijacking a mobile savings scheme targeting low-income women’s grassroots groups.

The company was recently embroiled in a media storm after it raided a local publication, The Source, accusing it of stealing documents for use in a story. The move was widely condemned by journalists and civil rights defenders.

The EcoCash Savings Club scheme was launched on May 6 and is a new mobile product supporting informal savings groups in Zimbabwe. The initiative is meant to benefit subscribers registered on EcoCash, the mobile money transfer platform, with informal savings clubs earning varying amounts of interest over a 30 day period, depending on the amount deposited.

Econet is partnering with the Organisation for Public Health Interventions (OPHID), a local NGO, working especially with women’s groups, but the scheme is generally aimed at millions of mostly low income subscribers – the self-employed, informal sector entrepreneurs, street vendors and social investor women’s groups.

Striking similarities

A non-profit savings outfit, Money Book Capital Trust (MBCT), is alleging that Econet stole its idea for the scheme through middle-rank managers with whom the concept had been shared.

Volumes of documents made available to The Zimbabwean show that MBCT shared its mobile savings idea with staff from Econet and Ernst and Young years before the mobile service provider launched the scheme.

There are striking similarities between the recently launched scheme and the concept that MBCT shared with staff from Ecobank—a subsidiary of Econet—and Ernst and Young.

The documents show that MBCT, right from the start, intended to use Econet facilities, among them the Ecocash mobile money transfer platform and Ecobank to roll out the savings initiative to a million low income beneficiaries by 2015.

The concept by MBCT also shows that it would target some 75 percent of women as its beneficiaries using the Econet network, as is the case with the recently launched scheme.

Side-lined

Sacha Robinson, one of the partners in MBCT, expressed shock that Ecocash had gone ahead and launched a scheme without consulting him or his partner, Paul Hopley. Robinson said he learnt of the development when he read a newspaper report.

“I hoped this day (of the launch) would arrive at a time when we would have achieved partnership with Econet with a view to expand my proposed concept globally but the (news) article… indicates that we have been sidelined and my idea that myself and Paul Hopley worked on diligently with E & Y and Ecobank and Econet has been encroached, compromised and indeed appropriated,” said Robinson.

“I remind you that we have an agreement with Ernst & Young, specifically for this project and in partnership with Econet,” he added in an emailed letter to Ernst and Young’s Chenjerai Maziwisa on May 9.

Moral fight

He indicated that even if fighting the Strive Masiyiwa empire, which owns Econet, might be an uphill task, it was still an option they were considering, and described the alleged theft of their concept as “selfish, dishonest and harmful practice”. But he absolved Masiyiwa of any wrongdoing, accusing middle managers of the hijack instead.

Robinson said he picked up signs of plans to steal the idea some two years ago when Econet released a press release on the planned scheme, and claimed that he had all the correspondence regarding the details of the deal.

He warned that the alleged dishonesty by Econet management would undermine the mobile operator. “I will be seeking legal advice on how to deal with this apparent leak and seeking for this matter to be righted either way … we will state upfront that this is not a financial fight but a moral fight for what is right,” he said.

Correspondence from Maziwisa to potential partners in the project, written in February 2013, suggests that there were collaborations in setting up the scheme.

Brian Jerahuni of Ecobank wrote also to Robinson on March 13, 2013, acknowledging knowledge of the proposed concept and its potential. He said the involvement of Ernst and Young as the fund managers gave credibility to the project.

“If confirmation that Ernest and Young are the fund managers then it’s worth our consideration. We will need to be sure of the reputational risk of non-delivery by the fund (sic),” wrote Jerahuni.

He asked Robinson if they expected to use the Ecobank licence for fund mobilisation and lending and acknowledged that daily savings reflected in the concept by MBCT was a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe, adding that it “mirrors the informal savings rounds in which most women and informal traders participate daily”.

The documents also show that Ernst and Young prepared a confidential information memorandum on behalf of MBCT that shaped the mobile savings concept.

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