Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Burundian Money: Mystery Solved

One of the things that’s wierd about Burundi is that all the money is different sizes – the biggest note, 10,000 Francs ($8), is very slightly bigger than the next biggest (5,000), which is very slightly bigger than the next biggest (2,000), which is the same size as the 1,000, which is a bit bigger than the 500, which is the same size as the 100, which is a bit bigger than the 50, which is a bit bigger than the 20, which is a bit bigger than the 10. In case you’re wondering if you read that right, the smallest note, the 10 Franc note, is indeed worth about 8 cents. And people do use them, mainly on the buses.

Even wierder than the proliferation of tiny denominations is the fact that some notes (I’ve seen it in 2,000, 1,000 and 500s, but it may occur elsewhere) come in more than one size, as you can see in the picture. The older ones are bigger, but none of us were able to work out why – if the government had been offered a deal they couldn’t refuse, if they were running short on paper, or if they just fancied a change. However, I have recently been able to confirm that the change is because Burundi is planning to introduce ATMs, and the smaller size will fit better.

Needless to say, this is awesome news. Admittedly I wouldn’t trust a Burundian ATM as far as I could throw it (same goes for anywhere else in East Africa, except maybe Rwanda), and in fairness it is possible to take money out on a Visa card. However, it involves going to one specific bank in Bujumbura, waiting at the Western Union counter with card and passport, waiting while they call your bank and fill out several forms longhand, getting a receipt, and waiting at another counter where you can exchange that for money in Dollars or Euros, which you can then exchange for Burundian Francs. As you can imagine, it isn’t exactly efficient, and this carries through to local banking as well - whenever I go to the bank it’s rammed full of people waiting, sometimes for more than an hour, at long queues at each counter to withdraw money. That’s got to waste an awful lot of man-hours, both for the banks, and the rest of the economy, so if this ever happens I would probably see it as a good thing – if they can prevent them being significant targets for robbery and if people trust them.

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