Over the past few years mobile banking and reaching the unbanked have proved to be invaluable to the African Economy. Payment products such as M-Pesa have proved to be popular in countries such as Kenya but yet to be adopted in the South African context. However, with hundreds of thousands in South African prisons it was no surprise to see how inmates start using mobile technology as a banking tool. In recent times inmates have been using cell phone airtime as a “Prison Currency” in exchange for other goods in the prison cells. As an inmate told me that airtime is a high commodity in the prisons. It is also easy to transfer as they just exchange the “airtime pin numbers” in exchange for their goods. Its “virtual money” that can move easily into the prisons and across various holding cells and sections.
A typical example of the value of this new “Prison Currency” is R15 airtime (US$2) will be worth a minimum of R30 (US$4) (two times its actual value) or smaller amounts could be negotiated at a higher exchange rate (3 times the airtime value). The most common airtime exchange amounts is the R10 – R15 (US$1.50 – US$2) and this seems to be the ideal amount to be used as a day-to-day payment method. It would be interesting to see what the value of the “Prison Economy” is and how technology are being used to drive this economy that has a greater demand for airtime than any other goods or services in the prisons across South Africa.