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Change Shortage Is No Small Problem for Abidjan Merchants

Aka Kouadio has a problem. Like many other residents of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial capital, he is not able to buy the fruits and vegetables he needs from local vendors. The problem is not that Mr. Kouadio has no money. Rather, when he tries to buy pineapples for 200 francs, just over 50 cents, the vendor is not able to give back change on the only bill Mr. Kouadio has: 10,000 francs, or $14.

"There is no change for the 10,000 francs I've been giving him for Ananas," Mr. Kouadio said.

For the past two years, Ivory Coast has suffered from an endemic shortage of small currency. The problem is particularly acute now because of the recent fall in the prices of cocoa and coffee, the country's main exports.

The phenomenon makes it very difficult to complete normal business transactions. It is affecting street vendors, taxi drivers, even supermarket owners. An Abidjan-based retailer, who prefers not to give her name, says she must find creative ways to keep her customers happy when there is no small currency. "It bothers us," the retailer says, "because we are trying to help out our customers and we are just not able to do that. The day before yesterday, we had to begin giving out candy in place of coins of 10 or 25 francs."

So, why is there seemingly no small change in Abidjan? Or is there? The retailer's husband says there are networks in the city who illegally amass change and then sell it to businesses and individuals, adding a fee to the cost of the coins or small bills. "We now have to pay six percent interest for smaller coins," he said, "and 10 percent for the larger coins, those which are worth 50 and 100 francs. So, if I want to buy 100,000 francs worth of coins, I will have to pay 106,000 francs."

One of these networks operates just across the street from the Central Bank of West African States, which mints a common currency for several French-speaking African countries. There, a group of about 10 young men stands offering to sell change.

The leader of the group proposed rates ranging from 10 percent for bills of 500 francs, to 20 percent for coins. He said that is because coins of 100 francs or less are the most difficult to find. He refuses to answer when asked where he gets his supplies.

Many retailers say the networks get their coins and small bills from individuals at the central bank. At a press conference in Abidjan, Charles Konan Banny, the central bank's governor, said he is aware of the problem. However, he offered few details on how to deal with it.

The governor would not say just what these instructions are or to what extent he hopes they will fix the problem. From the look of things, there is no relief in sight for Ivory Coast's businesses and customers.