Koru Kenya

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Raúl Carrillo:

"Shakhli’s questions have long revolved in the mind of Will Ruddick, an American physicist who began his career studying high-energy particles but now works for Koru Kenya, a community-development organization headquartered in Mombasa.

Some officials hope the currencies will provide a platform to finally tax the “informal sector.” Like the Brixton Pound team, Koru Kenya builds currencies that complement sovereign ones (although the organization now runs several “community currencies” in different locations across the country). Yet the scenarios could not be more different. Brixton is an admittedly hard neighborhood in a massive metro, but in the slums and villages where Ruddick and his Kenyan colleagues work, needs are more basic. As Ruddick put it when I spoke to him, people in Mombasa are not “struggling” in the same sense that they are in U.K. or the U.S.: “People here are starving."

Accordingly, Koru Kenya’s currencies do something the Brixton Pound does not: They create credit where there is not enough. Interest free. When Ruddick arrived in Kenya from the United States five years ago, his co-founders introduced him to a world of both waste and opportunity. There were people who could work but weren’t participating in the local economy. There were plenty of goods, but they couldn’t be bought or sold. All for lack of particular pieces of paper and metal.

“If I have forks and you have spoons but we can’t engage in trade just because we don’t have money, I consider this is a human rights violation,” Ruddick asserts.

That may sound intense to some readers, but this is what happens when a nation’s currency doesn’t reach all of its people: The public is separated from its own potential for physical abundance by mere lack of legal tender. Ruddick’s training as a physicist leads him to compartmentalize systems, and accordingly he sees lack of credit as a glaring yet solvable inefficiency in the economic machine: “When you turn one knob, the monetary system, everything changes.”

Ruddick envisions a network of interlocking local currencies contributing to a more distributed banking system. Ruddick and his colleagues began turning knobs by issuing a new community currency, the Eco-Pesa, into three villages in the Kongowea Location on Mombasa’s north coast. Businesses agreed to trade with the paper currency, and community members could earn extra by taking part in monthly service projects. Every month, people could exchange the vouchers for Kenyan shillings with the Green World Campaign, an anti-poverty environmentalist group.

In 2012, the Koru Kenya team took the concept one step further and issued the Bangla-Pesa in Bangladesh, one of Mombasa’s worst slums. Residents adopted the currency quickly, with many local business groups agreeing to become issuers, handing out the paper from community centers, health clinics, and schools. The network expanded based on trust: All you need to receive Bangla-Pesa free of charge is four guarantors within the network will who vouch for you. Part of your grant is placed in an actual network trust, which is used for administration, marketing, and community programs such as health care for elderly. Then you’re on your way.

In May 2013, the Bangla-Pesa went official. About 200 participating businesses, 75 percent of them owned by women, received currency grants. The organization’s definition of a “business” is expansive: An individual teacher, sex worker, nurse, or farmer can qualify. This inclusivity has repeatedly borne results. Since the launch, Ruddick estimates that total sales in the neighborhood of 8,000 have risen by 20 percent. Considering the financial paralysis of Bangladesh beforehand, this growth is tremendous. Still, some academics and analysts are cautious. The Brookings Institution, for example, wonders if the Bangla-Pesa might weaken linkages to the national economy or drive out “good money.”

For the most part, the national government and the banks haven’t stood in the way of Koru Kenya's success ... except for one small hiccup. On May 29 of 2013, Ruddick and some of his associates were locked in federal prison. Terrorism had struck, and Ruddick was lumped in with a secessionist movement in the resulting national security sweep. He and his associates had to make the case that the Bangla-Pesa was not meant to subvert the state nor destroy the Kenyan shilling. Indeed, the community currency is what Post-Keynesian and Institutionalist economists often refer to as an “automatic stabilizer”: When people can't get enough shillings, they use Bangla-Pesa, but when the national economy is roaring, they inevitably switch back to using shillings.

Ruddick is adamant that, for now at least, Koru Kenya’s currencies will continue to be pegged to the shilling at a 1:1 ratio. Supporting the strength of this case, hundreds of academics from the community currency movement, friends, and eventually the Kenyan attorney general rallied behind Ruddick and his associates. They were released within a few days and charges were finally dropped in August.

Now, Koru Kenya enjoys more support than ever, and faces few of the regulatory hurdles that often stifle local currency projects in the North Atlantic. Ruddick will soon become a Kenyan citizen like his wife and daughter, and the organization is sharing its experience in implementing community currency programs across the continent, with a specific focus on gender equality and women's empowerment. The group will soon rebrand as Grassroots Economics, signifying their growth into a full-fledged international foundation. Eventually they'll go digital, with the localized nature of each currency serving as a buffer against fraud and speculation.

Perhaps more importantly, Ruddick has already talked with other African governments about supporting local currencies. Some officials hope that these currencies will provide a platform to finally tax the “informal sector” (Ruddick estimates anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of people living in Africa don't pay taxes at all). If the local currencies indeed become accepted for national tax purposes, currencies like the Bangla-Pesa will begin to blur the aforementioned line between simple “credit” and state-sponsored “money.”

Ruddick welcomes that prospect. He envisions a network of interlocking local currencies contributing to a more distributed banking system and a more democratic monetary system.

“Money is what we make it. We should be asking, ‘What is real value?’” he says. The implications of the vision are enormous: “People won’t have to go into debt to the IMF or microfinance if they can just create their own community currencies.” (http://www.yesmagazine.org/commonomics/alternative-currencies-bigger-than-bitcoin-bangla-pesa-brixton)