Harare International Airport is a shadow of what it used to be. At the height of Zimbabwe’s economic growth in the early 90s, this tiny airport on the western edge of the capital once teemed with local travelers, investors and tourists.
British Airways and several other international carriers ran daily flights, and the currency exchanges in the international arrivals terminal did a brisk business.
Now, all of that is gone, including Zimbabwe’s national currency, the Zim dollar.
On a recent trip back home in Zimbabwe, one of the first things I noticed in the arrivals terminal were the billboards advertising cashless mobile payment services.
The Zimbabwe dollar, once the pride of this nation of 14 million, was abandoned in 2009 after nearly a decade of hyperinflation.
It got so bad that people didn’t carry their cash in wallets — they used duffle bags instead. Up until 2009, average Zimbabweans were trillionaires, but no one was vacationing at Club Med.
The #Zimbabwe Dollar - Introduced in 1980 at Zimbabwe's independence from Britain. The currency was abandoned amid severe hyperinflation in 2009. Zimbabweans now use a cocktail of regional and international currencies for daily transactions. The US Dollar, Indian Rupee, British Pound Sterling, South African Rand, Botswana Pula, Euro and Chinese Yuan are all accepted. Pictured, Bank notes in a basement in 2006.
Now people have retired their wheelbarrows — once used for moving mountains of cash for daily purchases — and replaced them with a mix of foreign currency and mobile phones.
As I found out after a few days, many retailers accept British pounds, euros, South African rand, Botswana pula, Indian rupees and even Chinese yuan.
For once, I didn’t have to worry about changing foreign currency on the parallel market for the smallest of purchases. However, the convenience of using U.S. dollars everywhere raises more questions than answers. For one, Zimbabwe has zero monetary policy.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has no control over the number of bills in circulation or interest rates. Many banks have scrapped savings accounts and no longer offer credit services.
The Zim dollar is just a nostalgic — and often tattered — memory. Some keep a banknote in their wallet as a keepsake. At Pariah State, an upscale restaurant east of Harare, trillion dollar Zim notes are displayed in wooden frames, hanging alongside black and white photographs from a bygone era.
And though U.S. dollars are now legal tender, they are in very short supply.
To Each His Own
The absence of a single national currency has spawned a laissez-faire situation in which different currencies are used in different parts of the country. In Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, the South African rand is king, while retailers in Harare’s Chinatown prefer to trade in yuan.
A national currency doesn’t just facilitate the exchange of goods and services, it also helps reinforce national, political and cultural identity.
The Zim dollar may not have been worth anything, but its greatest value was the fact that it was ours. And that’s all gone now.
Enter Mobile Payments
Even with five currencies in circulation, there just aren’t enough bills to go around, and this has created a huge opportunity for cashless mobile payment services, and that’s good for small businesses.
As mobile payment systems expand in reach and transaction volume, the sidewalks of Harare’s streets have literally become mobile markets.
Stores brimming with high-end smartphones, tablets and accessories now occupy spaces that were once offices, banks and currency exchanges.
For days, I resisted signing up for a mobile payment service. Then I found myself without access to an ATM but surrounded by businesses that accepted mobile payments, from gas stations to restaurants.
I’m betting that one day Zimbabwe will have a digital currency like Ecuador. I finally got rid of the tattered Zim dollars in my wallet because, well, the new Africa is about learning from the past, but also letting go.