The time came for worshipers to surrender their tithes on Sunday morning. But instead of dropping bills into a collection plate, the congregants at a large Pentecostal church rose and filed toward the deacons clutching hand-held card-reading machines. With a swipe, they were done.
“Yes, it looks like shoppers in a supermarket,” said Mercy Chihota, 33, a member of the church, the United Family International Ministries, in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “It feels good, but strange at the moment, because it’s very new.”
Of all the places speeding toward a cashless economy, this nation in southern Africa may not come to mind. About 90 percent of Zimbabweans work in the informal economy, where cash is usually a must. The country, despite the spread of cheap smartphones in recent years, remains low-tech. Blackouts are part of everyday life.
But Zimbabwe is hurtling toward a plastic future for a simple reason: It is running out of cash, specifically the American dollars it adopted in 2009 before abandoning its own troubled currency. Anxious about their nation’s political and economic troubles, many Zimbabweans have been hoarding dollars or taking them out of the country. Banks have slashed daily withdrawal limits. A.T.M.s now sit empty.
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