Informal foreign exchange (Forex) trade appears to be a lucrative business in Africa, where government corruption thrives and poverty persists despite a robust economic performance.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), street Forex traders begin to gather as early as 7am at every street corner of the country’s main cities. They display stashes of local currency, the franc congolais, and keep dollars, euro, rand and franc CFA notes in bags and underpants for security reasons.
Unemployment hovers 50% and poverty rate stands at 73% in this vast, conflict-hit Central African nation.
The Congolese use the US dollar in every transaction and trust it more than the ailing and valueless local currency. It is common to see consumers keeping their savings in American currency in safe places. They will only change them when the value increases and the franc congolais plunges.
“It is the same thing with people who go to the office in the morning and come home in the evening,” Guelor Mayimona, a Forex trader, tells FX Magazine.
Mayimona operates at the Place de la Victoire, in Kinshasa’s bustling suburb of Matonge,
Official bureaux de change are very few in the DRC. Informal Forex has a huge share of the market in many parts of Africa.. Street Forex traders in the DRC are called “cambistes”.
“This business is more than a job, it is a career,” Alain Maloko tells FX Magazine from the capital Kinshasa. Maloko is a graduate in economics but could not find a job in a country devastated by nearly six decades of economic mismanagement, dictatorship, nepotism and massive human rights violations.
The identities of the people who supply the street Forex traders is kept secret, but FX Magazine can safely confirm that suppliers of dollars, euros and franc congolais notes include high-profile people working in government and state-owned enterprises.
“We don’t know where they get that kind of money from, but I’m sure they steal it from the state’s coffers. We don’t have a choice but to take it and start working with it. And share the profits afterwards. This business is unstoppable because it involves the corrupt elite,” one young man says on condition of anonymity .
A reliable source told FX Magazine that money meant for development projects and social programmes sometimes lands on the streets for Forex trade operations. It will be returned later to the government. However, nobody knows if it is returned at all.
“Sometimes, we get a call in the middle of the night that someone is coming to deliver the cash. Bags and briefcases are full of dollars, euros and rand notes. You wonder where this country is going to. That is money-laundering in its best,” one street Forec trader says.
“Impunity is rife and auditing of government books remains stuck on paper. Anybody can do anything he or she wants as long as the person is covered by people sitting at the summit,” Amisi says.
Anyone can become a Forex trader as long as the person has some money to start with. One will also need the right connections that can supply him or her with foreign currencies.
The job of “cambiste” has become risky in the DRC in the past four years. Unknown gunmen continue to kidnap, rob and kill them for no apparent reason. Mayimona has started wondering if it is time to quit and travel abroad. “Cambistes have become the easy targets for organised crime syndicates. They are tracking us down for our own money and for being brave and enterprising. The Police and the government are not doing enough to protect us. I want to quit because I don’t want to die early,” he says emotionally.
On October 7, Forex traders in the port city of Matadi, 330 km west of the capital Kinshasa, took to the streets. They protested against a spate of robberies, assassinations and kidnappings that have rocked their sector for the past year.
However, for some life goes on regardless of the risks.
“There are no jobs in this country. Family members of top politicians get all the few jobs available and we get nothing. What can we do now ? This job is the only one we have,” Bijou, a Forex trader tells FX Magazine from the city of Goma, in eastern DRC.
“It also helps us feed our kids, send them to school and buy medication when they fall sick.”
“Forget the security threats and risks, there is money in this business. I don’t see myself doing something else apart from this. I started it 15 years ago and I think I’m doing well,” Maloko says.