Desperate times: Zimbabweans mend shabby US dollar notes

A currency trader inspects an old and tattered dollar bill before mending it, at a busy market in Harare, in this Monday, Oct 26, 2020 photo. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Albert Marombe takes a grimy, tattered US$1 note and delicately, expertly glues it back into one piece, holding it up for inspection.

“I don’t care how torn it is. All I want to see is the serial number being visible on both sides,” he said.

He’ll sell that shabby US$1 note for 80 cents, and it will get back into circulation.

Many shops will reject it, but market traders will take it, although at a reduced value.

Shredded by rats

Worn out or shredded by rats, US$1 notes are king in Zimbabwe, beset by a continuing economic crisis.

One dollar bills are used by many people to buy their daily bread and other small purchases.

Currency traders mend old and worn $1 dollar bills at a busy market in Harare, in this Monday, Oct 26, 2020 photo. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Crisp new notes are not coming into Zimbabwe, so enterprising traders are repairing old ones for desperate customers.

Formal businesses reject such notes, forcing people to sell them to traders like Marombe for a fraction of their original value.

Informal street markets will usually – with some negotiation – accept the glue-patched notes that Marombe sells for transactions.

Informal economy

Zimbabwe’s booming informal economy employs about two-thirds of the population, according to the International Monetary Fund, so there are lots of such dirty dollars in circulation.

The US dollar has dominated transactions in Zimbabwe since the country’s hyperinflation soared to more than five billion per cent and forced the government to abandon the local currency in 2009.

Last year the government re-introduced a Zimbabwe currency and banned foreign currencies for local transactions.

Few took heed though and the black market thrived, while the local currency quickly devalued.

Albert Marombe shows grimmy, tattered $1 bills at a busy market in Harare, in this Wednesday, Oct, 21, 2020 photo. ( AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

In March this year, the government relented and unbanned the dollar.

A nightmare

Now shortages of small denominations of the dollar are a nightmare.

The once-prosperous southern African country’s economy is so weak from de-industrialisation, low investment, low exports and high debt that it does not generate an adequate inflow of fresh greenbacks needed for its largely dollarised local economy, Harare-based economist John Robertson said.

“If people do have a small denomination in US dollars they don’t want to put those in the bank. They want to keep it to themselves,” said Robertson, explaining that banks generally do not pay account holders in cash.

Larger denominations are too big for many purchases.

Traders such as Marombe fill the gap by patching up torn dollar bills of many denominations, but the US$1 note is their main business.