Visited the regional Central Bank office today. High point of the visit: money distribution.
The Congolese franc trades at about 900 to the dollar. However, the largest note is the 500 franc -- about 55 cents. So, large purchases require great masses of cash. On Kinshasa's street of the moneychangers -- universally known as "Wall Street" -- one can see the changers sitting beside piles of cash, the notes assembled into bricks, the bricks piled high in stacks.
The regional central bank was like that, only more so. Besides Lubumbashi, Katanga Province has five or six towns large enough to have banks. And each town gets a shipment of cash every sixty days. Depending on the size of the town, the shipment will weigh between half a ton and six or seven tons of money.
Since the roads have pretty much collapsed, the cash is sent by air. The bank puts the money into large metal lockers -- about the size and shape of an old-fashioned steamer trunk -- and loads them onto one of the little propellor planes run by Congo's many local air services. The cash, along with a manager and several security guards, is then flown to the town and distributed to the local banks.
Today was not a delivery day, unfortunately, but I did get to see a pile of cash waiting for the next one. It was a mass of neatly stacked note-bricks, about two feet by three by six. A single bored looking clerk sat in a chair, watching the pile to make sure nobody wandered off with it. Nearby, several men -- clerks? Guards? -- were slumped around a long table, heads down, asleep. The building was a long concrete shed without air conditioning. Mosquitos danced in the sweltering air.
Depending on the denominations, I'd guess there was around a million dollars there. Maybe two million? It was impressive to look at. But on the other hand, it wasn't very much cash for two months supply to a city of half a million people.
Money shortage in the sense of physical shortage of actual cash is almost never a problem in the developed world, but it's a huge issue in Africa. Only the larger towns have banks. Smaller towns and villages tend to run a trade deficit with the bigger towns -- they import more than they export, if you like. So cash tends to flow out of the villages into the bigger towns. If your town doesn't have a bank, it can be quite difficult to lay your hands on large amounts of cash money. Notes tend to circulate until they are literally disintegrating. Even so, millions of Congolese never see more than a few dollars at a time. People work around it with credit and barter -- "on se debrouille", one gets by somehow, the Congolese national motto -- but it's still a huge problem.
There's also the partial dollarization of Congo's economy. But that deserves a post of its own.
Leaving the central bank, I walked past several hundred of the metal lockers. Battered and rusty, they were sitting in piles in the parking lot, waiting for their next flight.