AFP - For civil servants working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the arrival of mobile banking has been just short of a miracle.

Aside from getting paid on time, workers are now receiving what is actually owed to them, circumventing greedy superiors who used to dip into their pay envelopes to "tip" themselves and leave staff with only a fraction of their salaries.

"The first time, they're surprised" to see what they actually make, Hassan Wazni said, managing director at Sofibanque -- one of about a dozen banks offering mobile banking accounts in the conflict-torn Congo.

For the impoverished central African country the size of western Europe, the introduction of the service represents a minor revolution and comes about a year after Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo vowed to end the practice where state workers were paid in cash.

With an average annual revenue of $240 (185 euros) per person, most Congolese had never visited a bank before, let alone had an account.

Like a number of other countries in Africa and Asia that had only a tiny network of bank branches but where mobile phones are now ubiquitous, Congo opted for mobile banking.

No smartphones are needed. Clients can pay bills, make deposits or conduct other transactions via text messages.

Many shops, even in rural areas, have the equipment and can take deposits, make withdrawals or make sales with transactions confirmed by the clients with their phones.

"It's very practical," said Barthelemy Bosongo, who works at the Youth and Sports Ministry.

"Everyone likes it" even though there were a few hiccups with spelling of names at the outset.

So far some 270,000 state employees have received bank accounts, and by June all one million civil servants should have their accounts.

A year ago, only 2 percent of Congo's 75 million population had bank accounts, now, that number is at 5.7 percent -- thanks mostly to the government push to provide them to civil servants.

Widespread banking is important for economic development, and while the amounts many Africans hold in their accounts is small, the do add up.

Sofibanque's Wazni noted that in Kenya some $7 billion now flows through the mobile banking system every year.

Mobile banking should put a dent into the corruption that victimised even state employees.

According to the head of a non-governmental organisation which works with the Congolese army, it was common for state workers and soldiers to end up with the equivalent of about $5 after their $60 salaries had passed down the hierarchy to reach them.

And it is not only the employees who are benefitting, but the state budget. The switch to mobile banking has helped rid out so-called "ghost workers", or fictive people who have been added to the payroll so officials could pocket extra cash.

According to press reports, 30 fictive schools were recently uncovered in the North Kivu province, allegedly employing 200 fictive teachers.

The savings should more than cover the $3.5 fee banks receive from the state to set up each of the accounts, much of is shared with the mobile operators.

Godefroid Sizindi, a teacher and labour union activist, says state employees "are waiting impatiently for pay raises" from the millions he believes that the government is saving due to less embezzlement.

"Matata promised that the money saved would be used to raise the salaries of state employees. We're waiting," said Sizindi.


Photo: Flickr user babasteve, creative commons licensed.