Kenyans are such coin collectors they keep a total of Sh2.5 billion shillings in coppers and silvers in their office drawers, car glove compartments, piggy banks, purses, old shoes and cracked metal cups.
Although this means that Kenyans take care of the coins so that pounds can take care of themselves, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) is not amused. According to CBK, this scenario has led to a shortage of coins forcing the cashier at a supermarket near you to issue sweets, ball gum, and matchboxes instead of coins as change.
The Central Bank of Kenya had, as of April this year, distributed 1.2 billion coins worth Sh4.8 billion. That is pretty penny.
“Of these coins” said James Teko Lokoyetum, the bank’s Director of Currency Operations, “more than half the pieces are being withheld or hoarded by the public while others are carried away by tourists as souvenirs.” He lamented that “the CBK releases the coins but these never flow back to it.”
Money, some wiseacre said, is like manure: It is not worth anything unless you spread it. The Central Bank knows that Sh2.5 billion irritating circular pieces of metal make a difference when injected back into the economy. It is the kind of money that can build a fully-fledged hospital for, instance, just why the bank wants you to change the coins into paper money.
But have you ever wondered where local currency got its name?
Ours is called pesa, from Peso the Spanish currency. Our lowest denomination is five cents, also called Ndururu. Or Oruro in street slang. Ndururu is Swahili for “light, small, thin, undersize or weak.” The 10-cent coin, or peni, had a Sheng name, Ng’och, which gradually diminished in use as the value of the shilling nosed south over the years.
The earliest currency in Kenya, according to the CBK was the Maria Theresa Thalers which were silver coins used in world trade since they were first minted in 1751. They were named after Empress Maria Theresa of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1740 and 1780.
The Maria Theresa Thalers found their way to shores of eastern Africa in the 1800s and were similar to the Spanish Peso hence the word pesa.
The coins hardly reached the interior despite their popularity at the coast. The Indian Rupees, however, managed to do so since it was used to pay the Asian labourers during the construction of the Uganda Railway.
The labourers spent their wages buying ghee and produce from communities along the railroad effectively introducing a cash economy in the interior which would later be boosted by forced taxation that forced adults to seek employment with the colonial government and settler farms. This way, the Rupee became the acceptable legal tender besides earning different names in mother tongue.
The Kikuyus called it rubia pronounced Ro-ofia while the Maasai called it rupiani and Kambas kilovia or kilovoo.
The coins had a hole at the centre so they could be threaded onto a cord that tied was round the neck because “natives” were then mostly dressed in “shukas.” No pockets, please.
Harry Jackson, leader of the British East African Protectorate had also introduced the “specie” and “Pice” in 1897, but the new currency did not gain currency.
In 1905 the Rupee was hence made official currency of Kenya and Uganda until 1920 when we became a crown colony. Fifteen years later the Indian Rupee was terminated in favour of the East African Protectorate Rupees which were denominated into one hundred cents equaling to one Rupee.
In 1922 the Rupee was replaced during World War 1. One Florin was worth two shillings.
Come independence in 1963 Kenya needed “independent” currency.
In 1964 the East African Central Bank released interim notes called “Lake Victoria Money” in five, 10, 20 and 100 shillings. The notes were so called because they featured Lake Victoria in the background.
Coins were minted too. They were called “Uhuru” coins as they did not bear images of the President or Queen.
The East African Currency Board replaced the East African coin with the Kenyan shilling in 1966 when it issued the five,10 and 50 cent coins. Twenty-five cents coins were introduced in 1969 and two shillings coins three years later.
The cornered, five shilling coin was introduced in 1985. In 1994 the 10 shilling coin chinked followed by the Sh20 coin four years later. The Sh10 has nicknames such as “Ashara” and “kinde” while Sh20 is called “Blue” from the blue Sh20 notes now out of circulation. The Sh200 note was introduced in 1986 followed by the Sh500 one in 1988 and Sh1000 note in 1994.
By the way, until 1999, the Budget was presented in the Kenyan Pound-which didn’t exist at the time. People had to multiply the figures by 20 to get their equivalent in shillings.
Back to coins.
The Kenyan shilling has lost value so much so that even street beggars frown at being handed copper coins.
But there is a lot that can be accomplished with loose change besides disposing of it in church on Sundays.
Consider the case of Harrison Wairobi who begged so consistently that he bought a house and a truck. He was charged with cultivating bhang in his farm at Huhi-ini village in 2009.
He was released on a Sh200,000 bond which he didn’t pay in coins. Wairobi was 45 and could have been 10 years to retirement had he been formally employed.
And there is a new coin-based retirement scheme. The Mbau Pension Scheme by Retirement Benefits Authority is targeting fishermen, market women, groundnut hawkers, touts and other low earners.
Members contribute Sh20 from Monday to Friday, translating to Sh100 a week.
If a 30 year-old construction worker earning Sh300 a day joins the scheme and contributes continuously for 40 years, he will have saved Sh208,000 for his retirement.
The power of the coin is such that it has been the driving force of Kenya’s “kadogo” (small) economy in which goods and services are charged in low denominations affordable by the poor.
Multinational corporations have realised the power of the ‘kadogo’ economy which is why mobile telephony companies have Sh20 scratch cards while Unilever has Blue Band Kadogo.
Don’t you ruin my pockets
Even as the Central Bank pleads with you to change your coins into paper money, retailers don’t consider the shilling, ten cents and 50 cents coins as worth anything. Buyers also wax furious when the denominations are given as change.
Their grouse? The cost of repairing torn pockets is higher than the value of the coins. Matters are further compounded by commercial banks that charge clients for depositing coins.
For these reasons the CBK is planning to demonetize (stop the use of) the five, 10, 25 cents and the five shilling coin.
Coins have other purposes though.
They remind the user who is calling the shots. Between 1967 and 1978, the goateed portrait of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President graced our currency until 1980, two years after he died, when they were replaced by that of Daniel Arap Moi who assumed the highest office in the land.
Moi enjoyed seeing his portrait until 1985 when the CBK introduced a new coin series that restored the portrait of Kenyatta, a fete repeated 20 years later.
President Moi served his last term in 2002. The following year, a bi-metallic Sh40 coin with the portrait of President Kibaki was issued despite the President promising no currency would bear his image.
It was explained that the coin, nicknamed “Mama Lucy” after the First Lady was to commemorate Kenya’s 40th anniversary of independence.
Presidents Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki were treading a well minted path began by Julius Caesar who wanted citizens of the vast Roman Empire to know who was calling the shots and had his image on them.
Greek coins too had portraits of gods and goddesses. But Arabic coins didn’t have graven images as Islam prohibits that.
But the history of coins is older than that, considering the first coins were invented slightly before or after 700 B.C. in the Greek Island of Aegina, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Despite their chequered history, coins have more than their face value. Five shillings was what Anthony Kegode was paid after a protracted court battle by his partner, Adam Ogden, for East African Safari Air, Kenya’s first private international airline, in 2004 it was determined who owed whom what.
During the Great Depression in 1933 American President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all gold coins be melted.
No more gold coins were to be issued for circulation. But a few coins bearing the double eagle were issued.
Somehow, an insatiable collector King Farouk of Egypt was sold one of them to join his collection that featured anything from Aspirin bottles to used razor blades. Forty years later, the Farouk coin reared its head in New York whereupon it was seized by the American secret service.
A legal battle ensued over it. The case was settled in 2001 when it was auctioned for $7.5 million (Sh667 million.)