Making a living from tattered US dollar bills

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HE holds a tattered US$10 note, flips it over several times, makes a careful inspection of it, shakes his head and tells the woman that it is worth half its value.

The customer, an old woman, nods in agreement and is handed a crisp US$5 note. Done deal. She walks away happy.

At a street corner a few metres from the TM/Pick ‘n’ Pay Supermarket parking lot, is a man whose marketing tool is a PA system that he uses to inform members of the public that he buys damaged and soiled foreign currency.

It’s a lucrative business for Taimon Mawela and one would be forgiven to think that he is an expert in the financial sector, one who has the authority to decide if a “damaged” US$10 note is worth its value on paper or should be discarded.

Bulawayo residents at one point or another find themselves with a worn out foreign currency note that is half the time rejected in grocery shops, restaurants, fuel stations, salons, commuter omnibuses or even by street vendors.

The obsession with “clean” US dollar notes knows no boundaries in the streets of Bulawayo. One would be forgiven to think that Zimbabwe prints US dollar bills judging by the manner people are quick to reject not-so-good looking bills.

It’s a win-win situation in the streets, the kind of transaction that is concluded in seconds, yet remains a mystery to most people on how the buyers of the torn notes make a profit from buying money that should be destined for the dust bin.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison, we guess and Mawela’s poison is torn US dollar bills that he turns into meat.

He granted our Bulawayo Bureau an interview on condition that we don’t take pictures of him. He showed us some of the torn US dollar and rand notes that he bought during the week.

Tattered is an understatement. The notes look like they had been chewed by a donkey and spat out.

But the money is still valuable, according to Mawela and that’s why he is still in business and makes a profit to feed his family.

“It’s rare that I refuse to take a torn forex note because that money has to be in a terrible condition for me to decline it. I have seen some notes that are in the worst condition, but through experience I know that my boss will accept them and we will both make a profit,” he tells Saturday Chronicle.

Who is this boss who buys tattered money and supports Mawela’s hustle?

“My boss comes to collect the money at least every two weeks from Harare. I’m not the only one that works for him, he has about five guys, myself included, around Bulawayo that work for him and we all give him whatever we have when he comes to collect. I don’t know what he does with the money, all I know is that he pays me well for whatever amount I give him when he collects the cash,” he said.

For every dollar or equivalent in foreign currency that Mawela sells to his boss, he gets 30 percent commission.

“Last week business was low, so I gave him US$300 and he paid me 30 percent of that amount. He is honest, it’s a cash only business and payments are done on the spot,” says the street dealer.

In business there is always competition and Mawela’s hustle is no exception.

A food outlet has of late been accepting forex notes that Mawela and his colleagues deem to be too torn to be accepted by formal business.

“It’s killing our business. Why can’t these guys (food outlet) be like other businesses that don’t accept torn United States dollars?” he complains.

But business is a dog-eat-dog world and he accepts that he has to continue hustling to make a living.

Across town, between Sixth Avenue and Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo Street, a woman sits at a corner next to a car sales company.

She is selling roasted maize but next to her is a PA system that she uses to call on members of the public to trade in their well worn foreign currency for new ones.

The roasted mealies business is not the cash cow that brings in much money into her coffers. Buying torn forex is the real deal. Unlike Mawela, she won’t tell us her name but shares bits and pieces of the business.

“I also buy old trillion-dollar notes. It’s not my business to know what my boss does with them, as long as I make money, I’m happy,” she says.

In 2008, Zimbabwe went through tumultuous times and the country’s currency lost value to a point that citizens used trillion-dollar notes. Today, those notes are “valuable”.

A Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the old trillion dollar note has no monetary value.

“I think the old trillion-dollar notes are being bought by collectors who are keeping them for sentimental value. In other countries in Europe or the United States, rich people buy memorabilia like football jerseys that were worn by famous soccer stars just for sentimental value,” he said.

On the tattered forex notes, he said the Harare dealers smuggle the money out of the country to South Africa where more dealers get that cash into the South African banking system and in return are paid back in South African Rands.

“It’s a syndicate that operates in Zimbabwe and South Africa. It all starts in the streets of Bulawayo and Harare but that money ends up outside the county,” he said.

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