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Kinshasa's street money changers return

Mark Caldwell (Reuters, AFP)August 29, 2016

Over the last few months the Congolese franc has dropped significantly against the US dollar. On the streets of Kinshasa, one visible sign of choppy currency fluctuations is the return of the money changers.

Demokratische Republik Kongo Straßenszene in Kinshasa
Image: DW/P. Chitera

Bon Marche is one of the busiest neighborhoods in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is crammed with shops, bars, banks and money changers.

The money changers operate from wooden tables set up on the street with only an umbrella to protect them from the elements. They began plying their trade only a few months ago when the local currency, the Franc Congolais, or Congolese franc, began to depreciate substantially against their dollar. A year ago the Congolese franc was trading on foreign currency markets at around 930 to the dollar, now it is trading at just under 1,000 to dollar.

Ekanga Papy, a local shop owner, watched the money changers move in. "There are some places where the dealers are lined up along the street. At such places, you have six even ten tables where people are exchanging money," he told DW.

Money changers generally make a profit by selling currency at higher rate than that at which they buy it, in addition to any commission or fee they may charge.

One of the money changers in Bon Marche is Ngundia Jerry. He returned to street currency trading a month ago after a break of three and a half years. "I resumed the business seeing that it is providing good profits as the national currency has been falling against the US dollar," he told DW.

If the rate of the Congolese franc to the dollar is stable, people are in no rush to sell one currency and buy another. "When there is stability there is no benefit," said Jerry, speaking from the trader's perspective. But if people want the security of the greenback, then trade picks up.

Demokratische Republik Kongo Mine Kobalt Kobaltmine
The DRC's oil and mining sectors account for 98 percent of export earningsImage: AP

Papu Pateli used to own a shop, or bureau de change, for currency exchange in Kinshasa. He said he left the business in 2013 because the income he earned was not up to expectations.

"Many money changers are attracted by the rotation," he told DW."When you buy money in the morning, you sell it after one to three hours," he said. Money changing has the lure of a fast turnover and a possible profit on every transaction.

Foreign currency reserves

After years of stability, the Congolese franc came under pressure when the DRC's foreign currency reserves declined. Reuters reported in June that the DRC's central bank only had enough reserves to cover about five weeks' worth of imports.

The DRC's oil and mining sectors account for around 98 percent of export earnings and they have been badly hit by the downturn in the commodities market.

In May the government responded by proposing that the current budget be slashed by 22 percent. But the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) representative in the DRC, Nicholas Staines, said spending cuts could depress economic growth, leading to further depreciation of the Congolese franc and higher inflation.

The dollar has been used as a second currency in this part of Africa since the 1990s. In 1994, when the DRC was known as Zaire and run by autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko, the economy collapsed. Inflation had reached an all time high of 24,000 percent.

Patrice Chitera in Kinshasa contributed to this report