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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Using the Net to Send a Little Help

LONDON -- Inflation in Zimbabwe is soaring, and its citizens abroad are pitching in to help relatives at home -- giving part of their earnings in South Africa, for example, to Zimbabwean businessmen there, who then truck food, cooking oil and other scarcities across the border.

Now a high-tech solution has arrived, with Internet-based companies allowing Zimbabweans across the globe to go online to buy their loved ones everything from fuel and food to generators.

The web site Mukuru.com offers an alternative to long lines at gas stations short of fuel. Once a friend or relative has logged on and paid for fuel, the company sends a short message to the recipient's cell phone in Zimbabwe containing a 10-digit number the person can exchange for vouchers at a designated coupon office.

They can then fill up their car at stations that import fuel independently and sell at market rates, rather than having to scramble for fuel when it becomes available locally at prices heavily subsidized by the government.

Two other sites, Zimbuyer.com and Zimland.com, offer a virtual shopping center of Zimbabwean goods. Sitting in front of their computer, people can pay for Zimbabwean staples such as sadza -- corn meal -- and a popular brand of baked beans, or even televisions and power generators, which are then delivered to addresses in the country's three largest cities within 72 hours. Buyers can check the delivery status online.

Mukuru.com founder Rob, who gave only his first name out of concern for his family in Zimbabwe -- where criticism of the government and its management of the economy can be dangerous -- came up with the idea when he worked for a multimedia firm. His site is run by eight Zimbabweans based in Britain, home to the second largest Diaspora community of Zimbabweans.

He said cell phone users in the West were fixated on the pictures they could put on their phone screens or other features. But in the developing world, he said, "The power of the mobile phone is the SMS."

Africans in general have pioneered the use of cell phones to transfer value by using airtime as a virtual currency, thereby avoiding the high costs of transferring small amounts of money through banks.