The Country Behind the $100,000,000,000,000 Bill Hits a New Stage of Dysfunction


Update 1 August 2023:

One great thing about Zimbabwe is that it’s a VUCA economy with a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment. One place this manifests is in how hard it is to get change when you buy things from the shops since there’s a dearth of $1, $5 and even $10 bills since they’re expensive to move into the country. Literally by definition, why move 100 $1 bills when you can move a singe $100 bill instead?

This shortage leads us to get change in all sorts of ways, like paper IOUs (be it in the form of store coupons or a note on a receipt) which suck because they can’t be used elsewhere and they aren’t durable.

The worst case of this happening to me is when I had to get my glasses from the airport and had to pay the extortionate storage fee. I only had $40 and the fee was $35 and they didn’t have $5 change. The customs clearance place which would have had change was closed and they didn’t want to give me a credit note. They told me to come the next day, which is like no because the airport isn’t something people visit everyday1. Thankfully, the supervisor had some sense and noted the credit on my receipt, which they remembered months later when I went back to the airport.

It’s frustrating, Ms. Manyowa said as she waited 15 minutes by the till of a Harare Chicken Inn until another customer paid with a $1 bill she could use for the bus fare home.

As annoying as it was for me, it’s worse if you’re like Ms. Manyowa here who needs it to get home via public transport which is another joke.

The article mentions how they prevent counterfeiting and it boils down to it not being worth the effort. The places which give scrip like Simbisa and Spar along with having basic security features and would side-eye you if you have too many coupons.

Another way to get change is by getting something equivalent to the change, which is why the WSJ sketched a slice of cheese asking if it was legal tender. It’s not, but the fuck else are you gonna do?

To avoid such losses [from deteriorating paper IOUs], Ms. Moyo says she has accepted slices of cheese, extra sauce and, once, a hard-boiled egg instead of more paper chits. Those barter trades usually don’t offer good value for money, like the slice of cheese that cost her $0.50, but, she says, they’re better than carrying around, or losing, vouchers from multiple places. You’d rather just get the food, she said.

Like, I’ve straight face gotten a fucking pineapple slice as change before when you can find a whole pineapple for that much, but I digress.

The rapid devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar has made it too costly to constantly reprint menus, which show prices in both U.S. dollars and the local currency, so the company installed TV screens to display meals and their prices. It was costing us [Simbisa Brands] almost $2,000 to $3,000 every time you had to change prices, said Mr. Meares [CEO of Simbisa Brands].

Honestly, most supermarkets, which couldn’t get away with pricing in USD as the informal sector could, have given up and got electric tags and stick with listing everything at USD prices.

The supermarket chain has had to replace the electronic tags on its shelves because the old ones ran out of digits to display prices in Zimbabwean dollars.

There are more ways of tracking change:

Smaller stores keep a book with the names of customers they still owe money to behind the counter or scrawl amounts yet to be reimbursed on receipts. Some clients, fearing that a shopkeeper won’t remember, have taken to filming those exchanges on their phones.

Main issue is that they aren’t interchangeable. If only there was a way to keep a record of the money a person has (perhaps electronically) that stores can retrieve money from. Oh wait, there is,

The company has also launched an app, called InnBucks, that allows customers to receive change via a smartphone.

Alas, there’s a 4% 1% tax on each transaction you make, same with every other alternative. Given that bank balances have been zeroed out twice within the past 20 years, we don’t trust those. Companies even use safe custody instead of depositing their money in the bank, which the government can forcibly convert to Zim Dollars.

Zimbabweans have got this fun name. They’re calling it NMB bank2, said Mr. Mugano. National Mattress Bank.

This has problems. Besides being inconvenient, it has lead to increased armed robberies. We keep saying that we’re much safer than SA our wealthier counterpart, but I doubt that’s true anymore.

The most interesting solution is how some places form an informal monetary union where they help each other out with change,

In one corner of Harare, Allen Mutonga and the small grocery store next to his barbershop have created their own monetary union. When Mr. Mutonga’s customers don’t have the right bills to pay for his $5 haircuts, he sends them next door to make a purchase and get change via a handwritten note on the receipt from the shopkeeper.

“I’ll take the receipt home and hope that they have change the next day,” he said. If they don’t, “I buy something.”

I know this isn’t the biggest news in Zim this week, but I’ve wanted to write about the weirdness in Zim and this article gave me the opportunity to do it.

  1. Unless they’re gold launderers smugglers “traders”↩︎

  2. It’s the name of an actual bank here, hence the joke. ↩︎