The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 15, Number 18, April 29, 2012, Article 25


When Zimbabwe switched its currency to the U.S. dollar, it created a new problem: the lack of change. In a situation eerily reminiscent of the specie panic during the U.S. Civil War, small change is scarce and merchants and citizens are making do with a mixture of barter, scrip and horse-trading. Here's an excerpt from an article from The New York Times. -Editor

ZIMBABWE small change problem When Zimbabweans say they are waiting for change, they are usually talking about politics. After all, the country has had the same leader since 1980.

But these days, Robson Madzumbara spends a lot of time quite literally waiting around for change. Pocket change, that is. He waits for it at supermarkets, on the bus, at the vegetable stall he runs and just about anywhere he buys or sells anything.

"We never have enough change," he said, manning the vegetable stall he has run for the past two decades. "Change is a big problem in Zimbabwe."

For years, Zimbabwe was infamous for the opposite problem: mind-boggling inflation. Trips to the supermarket required ridiculous boxloads of cash. By January 2009, the country was churning out bills worth 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, which were soon so worthless they would not buy a loaf of bread (the notes now circulate on eBay, as gag gifts).

But since Zimbabwe started using the United States dollar as its currency in 2009, it has run into a surprising quandary. Once worth too little, money in Zimbabwe is now worth too much.

"For your average Zimbabwean, a dollar is a lot of money," said Tony Hawkins, an economist at the University of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans call it "the coin problem." Simply put, the country hardly has any. Coins are heavy, making them expensive to ship here. But in a nation where millions of people live on a dollar or two a day, trying to get every transaction to add up to a whole dollar has proved a national headache.

Zimbabweans have devised a variety of solutions to get around the change problem, none of them entirely satisfactory. At supermarkets, impulse purchases have become almost compulsory. When the total is less than a dollar, the customer is offered candy, a pen or matches to make up the difference. Some shops offer credit slips, a kind of scrip that has begun to circulate here.

Most countries that use the dollar get around this problem by minting local coins: Ecuador uses the dollar as legal tender but mints centavo coins. The government guarantees that anyone who wants to exchange 100 Ecuadorean centavos for a genuine United States dollar can do so.

But that requires confidence in the local government, something that is in even shorter supply here than coins. Zimbabweans say they want no legal tender issued by their government.

"I won't accept any Zimbabwean money," said Ms. Chikandiwa, the vegetable seller, who saw her life savings wiped out by hyperinflation. Back then, the value of the currency dropped so fast that prices for milk, cigarettes, sugar and flour would change by the hour, if not the minute. These days, Ms. Chikandiwa keeps all her earnings in cash, not trusting her precious dollars to the bank. "We can't trust these people," she said, referring to the government.

With single dollar bills in heavy rotation, they tend to suffer a lot of wear and tear. Many are filthy – almost black. Ms. Zhuwawu takes note of the cleanliness of the legal tender each customer hands her. Two-dollar bills, rare in the United States, circulate widely here.

Most people, she said, have a sense of humor about the problem. After all that Zimbabwe has been through, it is not that big a burden, she said. It is a give-and-take.

A man comes in to buy staples. A box is 30 cents; he has only a dollar. Her change drawer is empty.

"Just take it," Ms. Zhuwawu said. "It's your lucky day. Nothing is free in Zimbabwe."

Loren Gatch noticed this article, too. He writes: "The obvious thing to do would be for some private entity to issue fractional scrip, and promise to redeem it in dollar notes. Certainly the Mugabe government can't be trusted to do it!". -Editor

To read the complete article, see: Using U.S. Dollars, Zimbabwe Finds a Problem: No Change (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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