If you try to get anything done in Addis, you need cash. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted, except in the rarest of locations. So be prepared for multiple visits to the ATM. Sometimes daily. Unless, of course, you have a money exchanger (more thoughts on that practice below). Especially if you need to buy anything even moderately sizable. Like a food processor (speaking from experience). Which begs the question:
How do you navigate a cash-based developing economy in an increasingly cashless world?
I’ve been told that Ethiopia’s fiscal challenges are at least partially rooted in not having their currency traded on international exchange markets. As it is, you can buy Ethiopian Birr (pronounced like you’re chilly and/or “is there a draft in here?”) through the banks at somewhere around 30 Birr to the US Dollar. What might happen if that currency began trading on the world market? Inflation. Deflation. Cats and dogs sleeping together. Who knows. I’m already way out of my depth in bringing it up.
What I can say is that as a new resident of Addis, I’ve needed to visit ATMs with alarming regularity. And what you can get is generally a maximum of between 4000 and 6000 birr per visit. That’s somewhere between $125 and $210. If the network is up (which is another subject all together). The biggest bill and what’s most commonly issued by ATMs is the 100 Birr note. Most of the smaller bills - 5s, 10s and 50s - take a serious beating over time. Whatever denomination, paying for things require bundles of cash that need to be counted. Which I’ve come to very much enjoy watching locals do with speed and precision.
At this housewares store I needed to visit three times in the past week, one of the employees took the time to give me an introductory lesson. The trick is getting your thumb damp. Licking should not be an option, given the look of most bills. She used a little plastic dish with a sponge in it. However you do it, the thumb’s your primary flicking digit. It’s a two-handed operation, with the hand opposite the bundle and flicking thumb being where the work of counting happens. I’ve seen people who’ve got the motion down count through thousands of Birr in seconds.
I also had a conversation yesterday about money changing at one of the many ex-pats networking events I’ve attending in the past few weeks. Those who travel and exchange currencies regularly are surely snickering at my naivety. But I was nonetheless surprised to learn about the economics of the private exchange market functioning here and surely everywhere. Let’s just speculate that if you find someone who is looking to buy USD, they may offer you 36 Birr/USD. Because they can easily turn around and sell it for 39 Birr/USD on the street. Where that street is, don’t ask me. I’ve read that the limit for visiting Americans is $3000 USD, with comparable amounts for citizens from other regions. Even that won’t go far if you’re paying for everything in cash - Birr or whatever denomination. So you’re heading back to the ATM, most likely. And often.
However, there is an intriguing new concept that I’m excited to try. It’s run by the glossiest seeming of Ethiopian banks, Dashen Bank. I’ve seen their ads on the Ethiopian TV channels that I surf whenever I’m exhausted by the repeated cycling of Trump and Brexit blather on CNN and the BBC (the only English-language channels on our amazing cable spectrum of worldwide offerings). Dashen’s new system is called “Amole.” I must admit an inability to mention it without conjuring up memories of that scene with Fred Savage from one of the “Austin Powers” movies (where Mike Myers’s hyperbolic superspy can’t stop focusing upon Savage’s facial mole – “mol-ay mol-ay mol-ay…” – total movie scene ear worm). The point being that Amole’s meant to function like the Apple Pay system with all manner of merchants somehow leapfrogging to buy into the program. Back in Seattle, we also have those Amazon Go concept stores where you just launch the app and walk out of the store with your items, expecting the system of monitors to automatically scan and charge you. This isn’t meant to be that seamless. Still…will an electronic payments system work in Ethiopia? I’ll keep you posted. I’m hopeful this will be an example of what can happen when a developing economy embraces a cashless technology. Sometimes you have to make a big leap without always knowing what lies ahead.
In the meantime, I’ll be practicing my quick cash counting skills. It’s useful, immediate, and gives me something to do when the power goes out. Ciao.