Field Notes #1; Barter-Based Economies & Community Services?
Greetings from Nairobi!
I pulled into Nairobi from my (uncomfortably hot and humid) home of Dar es Salaam late last night, after a 16 hour bus ride (and more kung-fu movies than I thought one could ever endure in one sitting), beginning one month of full-time BoP Project travel through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and western Tanzania. So far, the BoP Project has only taken a look at Kenyan and eastern Tanzanian enterprises; On this trip, we will explore new ecosystems, new environments, new issues and new solutions. I’m personally excited for Rwanda, where on multiple occasions I’ve been told that no such thing as a “Social Enterprise” really exists. It’s a term that no one uses. Not because it is a country filled with greedy, self-centered capitalists- but because nearly every entrepreneurial businessman and businesswomen in the country is actually passionately dedicated towards improving their country, their people, and their environment. Kind of inspiring, right?
As I bus-hop across the eastern side of the continent with a backpack, too much camera gear, a few pairs of clothes (Biggest challenge: keeping my shirts ironed…) and a handful of notepads, I’ll be posting every so often on this blog and twitter @theBOPproject, with quick Field Notes & updates.
Why Field Notes? Because these little, durable, brown Field Notes Brand notepads have been my best friend for years. They are the all-mighty keepers of ”random thoughts, ideas, interviews, to-do lists, shopping lists, travel plans, escape routes, shady transactions, phone numbers, emails….” and anything else worth remembering. A big thanks to Andy for the tip on them. I’ll be trying to convert my scribbled field notes into legible posts for you all while I’m traveling- and trying to spur a little discussion!
So, what’s in today’s Field Notes?
A few thoughts on Barter-Based Economies & Sustainable Community Services.
I came across this truly inspiring article (check out the video here) in the New York Times about a remote hospital in Chidamoyo, Zimbabwe that, due first to Zimbabwe’s skyrocketing inflation, then the fact that U.S. dollars (the new national currency) were hard to come by for rural communities, started taking anything as payment for treatment- from live chickens to gallons of peanuts. While the hospital’s $10,000/month operation costs are still footed primarily by international donor agencies and groups, I am intrigued by the concept. Kathy McCarty, the american who’s run the hospital for some 30 years, wants customers to pay something-anything they can- so as to not make this just a one way charity handout, but a real value exchange.
The hospital is currently using the bartered goods to feed their patients and staff (offsetting a fair bit of financial burden for food costs), but what if, instead, they sold the bartered goods at the closest city market, to generate more income and sustain their programs?
Think about it. Extremely rural communities in Sub-saharan Africa are lacking (well, many things, but for this let’s just look at a few big ones) access to basic/necessary goods and services (like affordable health care), access to cash, and access to a guaranteed, fair priced market for the goods they produce. What if, for example, a community health clinic, or a community water well, or a community energy source, or all of these things combined could serve as the community’s central market place, yet require no actual cash? Locals could pay (barter) with their produce (whatever they have at the time), and the community facility (perhaps a micro-franchise model that combines a pay-per-use water source, hospital clinic, and energy provider?), would be able to bring/connect all of the goods produced in the community to the city or urban market. Individuals could bring all of their crops to the community facility, and build up an account of credit for use at the various (or single) community service providers. It would be a lot like combining a co-operative, a bank , and basic pay-per-use community services.
Individuals could certainly pay in cash if they wished, however by enabling a barter-based economy for necessary services, it would open up the community services to those who lack access to consistent sources of cash, while at the same time, providing a market for their goods.
I’ll be the first to admit, this idea clearly somewhat utopian, has a lot of up front issues, and it would probably need a lot of work to actually turn it into something feasible. But remember, this is just Field Notes. It’s half-baked ideas, ramblings, and reflections from Africa. But maybe, just maybe they’ll inspire someone to look a little deeper…