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August 15, 2013
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September 2, 2013

Bangla-Pesa: The Highs and Lows of a Local Currency

Written by Chris Parsons

Bangladesh is home to 150 million people packed into one of the world’s most densely populated countries. And whilst this is a story about Bangladesh, it’s not the one you’re thinking about.

This is Bangladesh in Kenya, a settlement of around 18,000 people across six villages on the outskirts of Mombasa, named as such after the former landowner left for the Asian country and didn’t return. It’s the sort of place that those of us who live faraway like to call a “slum”: a place defined by open sewers, no designated areas for rubbish, limited access to clean water, illegal and dangerous electricity and problems controlling HIV, as well as treating many other diseases. And yet, despite these adversities, in the “slum” of Bangladesh, there are some very smart things happening.

Just like Bristol, the businesses of Bangla-Pesa-Packed-800x600Mombasa’s largest informal settlement are accepting a local currency. And just like the Bristol Pound, there are colourful notes designed by the local community changing hands. And, because this is the 21st Century whether you’re in Kingsdown or Kenya, by the end of the year they even intend to start transferring their local currency by mobile phone – just like the £B TXT2PAY service.

This is the home of the Bangla-Pesa, a brand new complementary currency that began circulating in May 2013, enabling traders to mitigate the risks of supply and demand. Bangladesh is unusual in terms of informal settlements in that the majority of its inhabitants are women. Consequently, so are the majority of business owners signed up to accept Bangla-Pesa – nearly three quarters of them in fact.

bangla-pesa-kenyaTrading in the Bangladesh settlement is notoriously volatile. Very few have the means to save so money can only be spent when it is earned. These peaks and troughs mean many business owners regularly fall under the internationally-recognised line of absolute poverty by earning less than US$1.25 per day. The Bangla-Pesa is specifically designed to tackle this problem, making use of spare capacity in the market.

By agreeing to accept the currency, businesses are given 400 Bangla-Pesa each. They can use this money to buy goods and services from other members and must accept the notes themselves on the same principle, bypassing the need for traditional money at times when none is available, flattening out the good and bad days of the marketplace.

As the non-profit organisation that helped set up the Bangla-Pesa, Koru, states: “[A] bicycle operator may have the capacity for 20 customers, but in general only has 10. Now he can give rides to those businesses in exchange for goods and services they have in excess, such as a woman who has extra tomatoes to sell.” It is a brilliant way of effectively reducing waste and picking up the available slack for positive purposes, as proven by the community members receiving an estimated 22% boost in salesbangla pesta8

There is one major difference between setting up local currencies in Bangladesh and Bristol, though: doing so in Bristol is less likely to lead to imprisonment. After just a few weeks of use, the architects of the Bangla-Pesa scheme were arrested by Kenyan police on suspicion of being part of a separatist movement attempting to secure independence for the region around Mombasa. Creating a new type of money has rocked the boat enough to be treated as a political act of attempted secessionism.

At the time of writing, six members of the administrative team have been released on bail but their charges still stand, presenting the possibility of up to seven years in jail. It’s easy to become comfortably desensitised and not see the significance of making the choice to use a local currency. At Bristol Pound we did a lot of hard work to ensure that our scheme was compliant with all the relevant legislation and regulations, but the case of the Bangla-Pesa is a reminder that there can be an awful lot at stake for some people.

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