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Kenya Bans NGO's Local Complementary Currency, Arrests Project Leaders

Kenyan authorities have shut down a social complementary currency project aimed at reinforcing the local economy in Kenya and arrested six of the project leaders under the pretext of counterfeiting.

Through local NGO Koru-Kenya, led by former Peace Corps volunteer Will Ruddick, the Bangla-Pesa was conceived in May 2011 and was officially launched on May 11,  2013. But the Bangla-Pesa did not have the chance to run for more than three weeks before authorities put a stop to it. On May 29, 2013, six members of the project were arrested and face up to seven years in jail.

The Central Bank of Kenya claimed that the currency could destabilise the economy, and police complained that the NGO wasn't registered, according to news reports. The team behind Bangla-Pesa was even accused of being linked with the nationalist terrorist group MRC. These accusations were unfounded, police recognized later.

Bangla Vouchers. © Koru-Kenya

Bangla Vouchers. © Koru-Kenya with permission

From Bristol to Thailand, complementary currencies have gained momentum and recognition from civil societies and public institutions around the world. More than 5,000 complementary currencies exist worldwide, with a common goal to enable citizens to regain control of their means of exchange.

Some of them, like the Bristol pound, aim at reinforcing the local economy, others want to encourage environment-friendly behaviors or recognize the informal economy, or simply to give access to a currency tool that some areas have been deprived of.

The website of the project explains how the Bangla-Pesa works:

This currency forms a buffer against fluctuations in the money supply due to remittances, weather, holidays, sending children to school, political turmoil and so on. The fundamental driver of this economic stability and increase in trade is due to the BBN member’s ability to trade their excess capacity. For instance 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. This increases the overall efficiency of the market and helps the community weather poor economic periods.

Very soon, the new local currency caught people's attention, such as Ritchie King writing for the webzine Quartz:

The goal is to create an interest-free system of microfinance that doesn't rely on a bank or financier, but allows new businesses to get started by buying local goods and services on credit. Will it work? Hard to say, but Koru plans to release a progress report at the end of the year.

The crime of alleviating poverty

After the arrests, a wave of protest in support of the project emerged denouncing the inconsistency of the accusations being made against Ruddick and his team.

On her blog Web of Debt, Ellen Brown stood by the Bangla-Pesa and described the pretext of the arrests as a “crime of allieviating poverty”. She explained:

In this case, the physical Bangla-Pesa voucher looks nothing like the national currency, as it would need to in order to sustain a charge of forgery. The intent of complementary currencies, as their name implies, is not to imitate or compete with the national currency but to complement it, allowing for increased sales within the local community of existing goods and services that would otherwise go unsold. Today, the Bank of England itself acknowledges this role of complementary currencies.

Along with Elleb Brown, a number of individuals and organizations have offered their support. Badi Twalib, a member of the Kenyan parliament, also expressed his support: “The government should support the initiative instead of arresting people,” he said.

The United Nations also wrote a letter of support [PDF], which clearly states the inconsistency by emphasizing the usefulness of the Bangla-Pesa:

Local barter currency systems, such as the Banglapesa vouchers, can be very useful where local productive capacities are under-used due to a scarcity of national currency in circulation within a local territory. The vouchers enable trad to happen among local producers and consumers, which otherwise would not happen.

On Next City, writer Jason Patinkin illustrated the outcomes of the social currency in its early steps in the neighbourhood of Bangladesh, near Nairobi:

Fatuma, who said her gross income each day was about 2,000 shillings, said she might throw out up to 200 shillings of spoiled stock each day. But she sold some of that extra stock for about 50 Bangla-Pesa each day, thus reducing waste by at least 25 percent and giving her extra “cash” to buy things like maize and soap. That extra buying power was crucial on slow business days, including the afternoon I spoke to her. “For women like me who don’t have a husband and who have kids, in a day like this where you’ve not sold anything, it would be better to have Bangla-Pesa to go get some food,” she said.

According to a study produced by the NGO which runs the currency, results after one week were very positive, with an increase of more than 20 percent in trade. Unfortunately, further data was confiscated by the police, leaving it impossible to analyse the later weeks.

On Facebook, the page “Kenyans Must Know” pointed out the irony of the story:

Banning Bangla Pesa while allowing Mpesa, debit cards and similar to operate as legal tender is discriminatory. Mpesa and related money is nothing but a promissory sms generated on mobile phone networks; Bangla on the other hand is promissory pieces of paper circulating among a small network of dwellers in Bangladesh slums in Mombasa. Hence, there is no other reason than the fact that those who own Bangla Pesa are dirt poor, while those who own the likes of Mpesa are stinking rich. That is discrimination and it should be nipped in the bud.

M-Pesa is a very popular mobile-payment currency system which is entirely legal in Kenya and currently monopolizes more than 20 percent of the GDP of Kenya. But unlike Bangla-Pesa, M-Pesa is run by Safaricom, a private company which is making huge profits, at the expense of the Kenyan government which loses seigniorage revenue when more people are using M-Pesa, explained Izabella Kaminska on FT Alphaville earlier this year.

“Time to get serious”

To defend their case in court, the NGO has launched a petition on its website, and a crowdfunding campaign to cover the cost of their defence and build the next steps for the Bangla-Pesa: a mobile application enabling trade without the need for physical vouchers, like M-Pesa works. The NGO requests 47,000 euros (about 60,700 US dollars) to achieve this.

The next hearing will take place on July 17. The six members of the projects face up to seven years of jail.

On his blog, Matthew P Slater wrote a note entitled “Time to get serious”. He explained why he believes the affair is important — and calls for more support.

Bangla Pesa is a test case, and it stands on the front line of the movement in the 21st Century. If you can't give much money, what else can you do?

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