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Money in Zimbabwe

The country of hyper-inflation is embracing new technologies as a solution. And is running out of cash fast…

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50 US$ worth

50 US$ worth

No-one is allowed to withdraw more than 100 Zimbabwean Dollar Bonds per day – and that’s combined from foreign currency exchange and the ATMs. That’s the equivalent of 6 US$. You read that right: SIX US Dollars per day. And while I am very good at roughing it on a small budget, 6 dollars a day might be pushing it. The reason for this otherwise strange policy is simple. There is a shortage of cash in Zimbabwe.

Well-stocked

Well-stocked

Most people know at least one thing about Zimbabwe: the economy is going down the drain. To me, at least, stories about the country’s dire economic situation go back just about as far as I can remember. So let’s take the good news first. Supermarket shelves are well-stocked, though sometimes shortages to appear. The week I arrived in Zimbabwe, bread was in short supply. Regardless, life throttles along fairly normally from day to day, and there are no longer any of those 10 trillion dollar bills around.
The big hotels, fancy restaurants and some supermarkets will take international credit and debit cards, which is useful if these are the establishments that you frequent. That said, for the unknowing budget traveller entering the country, things are a little more difficult money-wise. Let’s take the most obvious thing first. How to get hold of those sweet Zimbabwean Dollar Bonds, so it’ll be possible for us non-millionaires to survive our stay in Zim.
The days of hyper-inflation are gone, and the government will no-longer print money indefinitely. As a result, there are not enough bills and coins to go around. To make matters worse, the highest denomination is the 5 Dollar Bond bill – worth roughly 33 US cents. That made sense, when Zimbabwe introduced the Dollar Bonds at the same value as the US Dollar, but the currency has slipped and not only is there a shortage of cash, that cash in now worth less than it used to when it got released, making the lack even worse.

Guesthouse view

Guesthouse view

So what do travellers do? The obvious solution would be to bring in enough US Dollars to cover one’s stay. That’s what I have done. However, the government has made it illegal to use US Dollars directly, and given the shortage of cash, it’s both difficult and expensive to exchange to US Dollars to Zim’s Dollar Bonds. No forex bureaux can operate in an environment like this and, as mentioned, banks will only give you six US Dollars’ worth per day. In tourist areas, most guesthouses will accept US Dollars regardless, and the black market is readily available, though their rates are far worse than the official rates. At the time of writing, official rates were 15 Dollar Bonds to 1 US Dollar, while the black market rate was 11. Not a fantastic deal by any stretch of the imagination.

Mobile money

Mobile money

A far better option is EcoCash, a mobile money service. Ques are long, though, but it’s relatively easy to get a local sim-card and set up an account. That way I can pay at the market, bus station and gas station with my phone. The best part is that (the first week I’ve been here) the rate has been 17 Dollar Bonds to the US Dollar, which makes for the best deal available. However, the rates change fast. At the border post, this week’s official rate was posted. As that suggests, the rate change weekly – sometimes dramatically. So I’m being careful about changing large amounts of money at once, whether on the black market or by phone. If the rate drops suddenly I could be stuck with unspent (eco)cash, that could quickly become very worthless.
It all results in extra hassle. Whether it’s queuing for an hour to get a loaf of bread or to recharge your mobile money account, or the fact that you are operating on the different exchange rates depending on whether you’re paying by cash, credit card or mobile money. For those of us who think hassle adds to the adventure, this isn’t too bad. But ask me again once I’ve been here a month – I might have changed my mind by then.

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:07 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged travel overland zimbabwe motorbike money southern_africa dollars hassle Comments (1)

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