/ 14 November 2008

A lively rate of exchange

It may be hundreds of years since the colonialists introduced hard currency to Africa, but many Ugandans still manage to get life’s essentials using the barter system. All it takes is a willing buyer and a willing seller and money never needs to change hands.

In rural areas where about 80% of the population relies on subsistence farming, the impact of legal tender is not much felt and is seen even less frequently. People don’t need to sell their maize for money to buy sugar, salt, kerosene, painkillers, or even to pay for school fees. Barter trade works for them.

Arua district in the West Nile region of Uganda borders the Democratic Republic of Congo. Barter trade is a daily business across the border. People from Arua get commodities such as sugar, fuel, timber, gold and a popular textile commonly known as kitenge from the DRC in exchange for foodstuffs such as beans, cassava, millet, game meat and groundnuts. The season’s harvest dictates the currency.

Rosemary Muduru (35), from Orusi village near the DRC border, runs a small textile shop.

”For two 20kg tins of beans from my harvest I can get 10 pieces of kitenge, which I retail at a profit in my shop. I’ve been doing this since 1999 and it has helped me educate my children, build a house and save some money.”

Guma Benson (67) is a charcoal dealer in Pajulu village, not far from Arua’s town centre. He doesn’t need hard cash to get stock from his suppliers.

”I tell him to leave any amount of sacks I need and I ask him to come for the money when he comes back to give me another stock. In doing this I keep my customers happy and I can even sell 20 sacks in a week.”

It is common for charcoal dealers to supply stocks on lorries to retailers in different places. This is always done once or twice a month depending on the capacity the retailer can stock. Some have big stalls that can store up to 100 sacks. The retailers in turn sell the charcoal in small amounts, ranging from a 2kg tin to a full sack.

Guma says as most of his clients in Pajulu village may bring other items, such as maize, beans, cassava or millet in exchange for charcoal, he asks the supplier of the charcoal to take these foodstuffs as payment for the charcoal.

”I can give him three bags of maize, one bag of beans and a sack of cassava as payment for the old stock of charcoal and then he leaves me with another stock which I sell until he comes back,” Guma says.

This has enabled him to earn a living, as he doesn’t buy food in most cases.

Shopkeepers also allow their daily customers to deposit their produce and pick any items they want from the shop.

Mama Erick, who runs a small grocery store, will take a sack of maize or beans from a potential customer who can then buy sugar, salt, cooking oil, et cetera, up to the agreed price of exchange.

Casual farm labourers are paid on the same barter principle. A family without food will work for a day and go home with full bellies and food to spare for their table. In Logiri, a sub-county in the Arua district, this kind of exchange is linked to basic survival.

Says Candia Jal, a farm manager in Orozu village: ”When we need casual labourers, I ask my boss to buy a goat. Once they have seen the goat, it boosts their morale to work hard. At the end of the day the garden is clean and plants are growing while the labourers are happy to have carried meat home to the joy of their families.”

Patience is a virtue in cash-poor rural communities. Yet delayed payment for services rendered is often regarded as a form of saving.

Says peasant farmer Nduluru Mary: ”I once used a group of women to plant some beans and cassava on my brother’s land. I failed to raise the money to pay them immediately but this wasn’t a new thing to them.

”They waited for some months before we harvested the beans. I had been disappointed that I couldn’t pay these hardworking women on time but, as was the common practice, I offered them a basin of beans each after the harvest. They appreciated it so much because it meant they would be free from the demand for sauce in their homes for a good period of time.”

Clothes have become another popular barter commodity. In Koch Goma village in the Gulu district neighbouring Arua, Denis Kibwola, an upcoming farmer, uses a combination of desirable goods with which to lure labour — including clothes.

”I mobilised labour from the village to clear four acres of land by buying two goats for 80 000 shillings [about R480],” he says.

”When it came to plant the first crop, I visited Owino Market in Kampala, where second-hand clothes are sold very cheaply. With 100 000 shillings [about R590], I managed to get clothes for the men, women and youth doing the work for me. I didn’t spend much. They benefited from the clothing and even offered to come back and weed, if I could organise another goat and a pot of alcohol.”

Even school fees can be met through a barter arrangement — and parents just hope their harvests will be good enough to see their children through the system without getting chased out of class for defaulting on payments.

Typically, parents enter an agreement with the school management binding them to deliver a certain agreed number of sacks of maize or beans to the school as payment. It works out well and many children — including myself — completed their secondary education without coins and notes coming into it.

Some parents go to the extent of leasing their farms to schools for a certain number of years, enabling a child to complete the six years of secondary education.

”This form of agreement has really helped me to educate all my four children,” says 56-year-old James Adriko.

”I gave part of my land to the school to pay fees, so I have to use cash only for books, uniforms and pocket money for my children.”

Of course there are times when real cash is necessary. For example, a person travelling from an outlying district by bus to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, will need legal tender for the transport fare.

But one thing is sure. This person will have either a chicken or some grain to sell in town to get his or her fare back. Just stand near the country bus terminals in the city centre and you will see these passengers streaming off the buses clutching chickens or sacks.

Such chickens are popular in Kampala — buying direct from the owner makes them cheaper than the ones in the city shops and nothing can compare with the sweetness of a fresh, country chicken.

Pius Sawa is an award-winning reporter and a features producer for Radio Sapientia. He lives in Kampala


M&G Newspaper