PayPal still thinks Africa is the ‘dark continent’

PayPal Inc.Image via Wikipedia

I just got an email from a friend in Austria. Inspired by a post on LGBT Asylum News he wanted to make a donation to the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) in Nairobi.

The people there are wonderful, and intelligent, and courageous and open-minded people indeed, and they deserve our help and solidarity. Tears are forming in my eyes when thinking of the women and men with HIV infection and AIDS living in poverty there.

But my friend found out that whilst sending money via PayPal is possible for people in Kenya receiving money is not.

When he contacted PayPal customer services by email they claimed that receiving money is not allowed by the legislation of Kenya. Yet he was able to send the money to Kenya via Western Union — for the transmission of Euro 100 he had to pay a fee of Euro 17,50 which is far higher than PayPal’s charges.

Jonathan Gosier, a software developer, writer and social entrepreneur, explains on appafrica how:

PayPal, intentional or not, are sending a very strong message to the rest of the world about Africa.

Prior to moving to Uganda, Gosier had used PayPal for four years and estimates that he’s transferred over $100,000 during that time

Bu this counted for nothing once he’d moved to ‘the dark continent’.

Apparently PayPal’s way of ‘policing’ their service is to simply flag various IP addresses as being ’suspect’ . hrmm. I have a few Iranian and Indian friends who could tell you a bit about what it’s like to get profiled based on where you appear to be from. (And if they won’t suffice as anecdotal evidence, I’ve got a few million mexican and black american friends who’d double down on the sentiment.)

So Africa remains a high-risk zone as the sheer number of comments like these from paypal users indicates:

I am in the process of trying to sell a laptop. i have posted ads on comtrader and ebay. So far the item has been bought off ebay by a mother who wants its for a present for her daughter in AFRICA. Two people have expressed interest through comtrader, one wishes to buy it for a business associate in AFRICA, and the other wants it for himself, and guess where he lives….. AFRICA. Sorry for all the capitals, but am i missing something here. I’ve replied to the ebay purchaser who is going to pay through Paypal, which i know is covered by ebay so i feel safest. Just wondering if this obsession with me posting it to AFRICA is anything i should be sketchy about.

Or this person’s thoughtful reply:

Anything from africa is a scam so stay well clear. Re-list the item if you have too.

Wow. Anything from Africa is a scam. I better take back this computer I just bought from GAME!

The unintentional effect here is that by blanketing the whole region as suspect, it reduces the number of viable alternatives for legitimate businesses and professionals who want to use services like PayPal for trade. I use PayPal for some of my payroll now (for people who don’t live near me). However, whenever I do, PayPal flags my account and shuts it down temporarily ‘because I accessed it from a suspicious location’. To unlock it I have to call them, from Uganda and do a bunch of other stuff that’s inconvenient. I suppose this is the price of admission for using the service in country it wasn’t intended to be used in. So no complaint here either.

But what it does mean, is that from every angle legitimate African businesses are smacked in the face by measures put in place to police the one’s that are indeed abusing the system. But this affects even expatriates and NGOs that might want to use the service. If it’s accessed from a certain IP there’s a red flag, especially if that IP is not where you registered to use the service.

Once again, the message perpetuated here is to be cautious when dealing with Africans, Africa or anything you suspect of being related to the aformentioned. This is nothing new. Most people here have been dealing with such mentality their whole lives, why would it stop now that the medium has changed? To be fair, there’s truth to this stereotype. There is indeed a huge problem of scams here. There is some truth to most stereotypes, the word itself simply implies that those truths are applied where they don’t necessarily belong.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people here who are just like consumers everywhere else in the world. They want to buy things, they want the conveniences of online shopping, they want to do business…and they want their neighbors to stop scamming you so they can have those things.

I realize that the problem can’t be solved entirely by Paypal alone but I would appreciate at least an option to flag my account in advance for what might be mistaken for ’suspicious activity’. I’d be happy to leave this to PayPal’s discretion but my problem is they aren’t using any. African transaction? Banned! Banks will allow customers to indicate that they will be abroad for a certain period so that they don’t shutdown accounts by mistake. Why doesn’t PayPal? You’d be surprised at how damaging these blanket policies can be to an organization like mine that simply just wants to pay employees and be paid by clients.

I suppose the complaint is that PayPal doesn’t give me an option to avoid my account getting bricked. It costs me money everytime they do it. they give me no alternative to prevent it from happening and when I talk to them, somehow it’s my fault for existing ‘in that country where The Last King of Scotland took place‘.

My Austrian friend says:

To me this is a kind of discrimination, and neo-colonialism, and racism towards African people, and it reminds me of the inhuman politics of the pharmaceutical industries not to reduce their prices for medicaments for HIV and AIDS in poor countries, but to accept the death of lots of people who could not afford these high prices. If you are living in a rich country of the European Union you survive, if you are a poor woman and a poor man in Africa you die. We must not accept it!

I thought of his experience and Gosier’s whilst reading about the coming of broadband to East Africa (which includes Uganda) via the BBC’s excellent series of reports.

This did warn of and catalogue the whole raft of other challenges to Africans other than the lack of broadband, which puts its arrival in context, but they missed this one.

Theresa Carpenter Sondjo notes that there are alternatives for African entrepeneurs to PayPal, however they are all more “more expensive and less flexible”. That seems to be a running theme for Africa – lots of stuff to build a business is way more expensive, Africans have a stack of hurdles to jump over.

Maybe Oxfam, Mr Bono and Mr Geldof should get onto this one and start shaming PayPal?

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