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Bangla-Pesa 'currency' helps residents thrive in hard times

Thursday May 11 2017

WINNIE ATIENO
By WINNIE ATIENO
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As Kenyans struggle to make ends meet due to the high cost of living, some Mombasa residents have been using an alternative currency to meet their needs since 2013.

Some 2,000 residents of Bangladesh, the largest slum in the port city, have been using Bangla-Pesa, a complementary currency printed in Germany that allows only registered members to use.

Bangla-Pesa is now being used to pay school fees and funeral expenses, in harambees and as church offerings.

The currency comes in denomination notes of five, 10, 20, 40 and 50. A member is given a maximum of 400 Bangla-Pesa, of which 200 goes back to the community and is used in cleaning up the area.

The initiative enables them to engage in barter trade among the registered Bangla-Pesa networks.

“The economy is dwindling but we thank God because we are trading among ourselves using Bangla-Pesa. It is a business-to-business voucher system that provides a means of payment that is complementary to the Kenyan official money,” says Bangla-Pesa national chairman Paul Mwania.

The currency was launched in the impoverished slum in 2013. But most Kenyans became aware of it when six members, including Will Ruddick, the inventor, were arrested because of what they believed was “a misconception about the currency”.

'SECESSIONIST GROUP'

“Police and some suspicious people thought we were a secessionist group like the Mombasa Republican Council and that we had our own currency.

"There was a lot of stigmatisation. We were charged with possession of illegal currency papers in May 2013,” said Mr Mwania.

Members of the Bangladesh Business Network were also told to stop using the currency. Luckily the charges were dropped a month later and ever since, the network has grown and helped businesses to expand.

Mr Mwania, who runs a butchery, exchanges meat for water from vendor Emma Onyango.

“But the exchange should be of the same worth. I can get 10 jerry cans of water from her at Sh100 and she can get meat of the same value.

"Our network consists of people who run different businesses, from food to clothing, books and all the basic needs,” he said.

Ms Onyango, the grassroots coordinator, was among the six who were arrested in 2013.

“We started with around 100 members, but we have grown to 2,000 and more want to join.

"We want the government to come in and allow all Kenyans to use this currency voucher, especially now, due to the economic downturn,” explained Ms Onyango.

BUYING STOCK

The group also uses Kenyan currency to buy stock for their shops.

The group now wants to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta and Central Bank of Kenya Governor Patrick Njoroge to “enlighten” them about the currency and forge better relations.

Foreign tourists and university students are also flocking to the slum to study and conduct research on the currency voucher and how locals’ lives have changed, added Ms Onyango.

“Bangla is now a tourist attraction. We should tap into that market and earn from it. The currency can be used specifically to help grow the economy,” she said.

Members of the group include teachers and religious leaders.

Their only challenge is cash to buy stocks.

“We also do credit clearing or exchange money. For instance, if you lack the Kenyan shilling and you want to buy some goods in shops that don’t use our currency voucher we will exchange the cash with Bangla-Pesa,” she added.