Zimbabwe: An economy running on chickens

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MUTOKO, 22 December 2009 (IRIN) - Every fortnight Makaitei Musakwa, 45, catches one of her chickens, picks up some of the maize she has grown, and sets off for the village mill to have the maize ground into mealie-meal, Zimbabwe's staple food.

"It is difficult for me to raise the money that the miller charges ... I have nowhere to get it from," said the widow who looks after four children of her own as well as two nephews. "He charges a chicken to grind for me twice."

Barter trade has been common practice in Zimbabwe since crippling hyperinflation rendered the local Zimbabwe dollar all but worthless. Economists stopped measuring inflation after it hit 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent - 65 followed by 107 zeros - and in February 2009 the economy was officially "dollarised".

Phasing out the local currency and introducing the United States dollar, South African rand and Botswana pula as legal tender has helped rein in inflation, but those currencies are seldom available in remote areas like Mutoko district, some 70km from the capital, Harare, where Musakwa lives.

A chicken can go a long way

The owners of small businesses in rural areas feel they have no choice but to accept goods in lieu of cash, and a chicken can exchange hands several times. Simplicius Gomo, the miller in Musakwa's village, said he gladly accepted payment in kind because it kept him in business.

"I use the chickens that the villagers bring to me to buy the diesel that powers my grinding mill. If I have a surplus of the chickens, I ask the dealer who brings the fuel to give me some cash that I use to buy spare parts, keep for my children's school fees and uniforms, or buy small items with," Gomo told IRIN.

"Imagine, after my fuel supplier gets the chickens from me, he uses them to buy goats, sheep or any other form of livestock, that he in turn either sells for cash or passes on to the next dealer, who decides what to do with them," he said.

Gomo also sells second hand clothes at the village flea market. He trades the chickens for clothes, which he gets from truck drivers going to and from neighbouring Zambia along the nearby highway, as well as other goods like grain and seed, while some villagers offer to work on his fields.

What is your chicken worth today?

Chickens are also used as bus fare. "Almost every day we hear stories of a passenger being thrown out because they have quarrelled with the driver and bus conductor over the value of the item they have offered," he said.

Barter trade has become "a day-to-day way of coping with the scarcity of cash", but this "inevitably" leads to unfairness and disadvantage to some of the people exchanging the goods, said John Robertson, an economic consultant based in the capital, Harare.

"This is because the value and exchange rate of items being exchanged is highly subjective, and also depends on the level of desperation among those involved in the barter," he told IRIN. The desperation of people in rural areas sometimes made it easy to take advantage of them.

Musakwa said she was down to her last hen. "I am afraid that the children will be disappointed on Christmas day, since my fowl run is now almost empty."