Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Credit Cards in a Cash Society

27 December 2009

I was standing at the airport waiting to pick up my brother and Claudia a few weeks ago, and saw an advertisement that caught my attention. The ad was for credit cards, and it read “We’re the first bank in Tanzania to issue credit cards. You can use them to buy things online, and to purchase plane tickets.” And that was it.

I had to laugh as I thought of other possible uses for credit cards in the country. I couldn’t imagine anyway. If I brought a credit card across the street to the local duka (which, from what I hear, is probably unregistered anyway…) they would look at me like I was crazy. My Swahili wouldn’t be up for the task of explaining it, let alone why they might want to get a machine, and power, and a network connection, to allow people to use such a thing!

I turned to the taxi driver who had brought me to the airport and tried to explain the humor of the ad, but soon realized he didn’t know what I was talking about. “A credit card is kind of like a bank card,” I tried to explain. “You can pay for things with it…”

Granted, the driver’s perspective of his fellow countrymen can be a bit critical at times. But I had to think when he replied, “Then no one in Tanzania could get one anyway, because no one has five thousand shillings to put in the bank.”

Is a “free cash card” really a good idea to introduce in a developing country? Now I’m not so sure…

A couple of weeks later, Jeremy, Claudia, my roommates, and myself all went up to a little town called Lushoto for a breath of cool air. The hostel we stayed at advertised the ability to use visa for payment, so we inquired about this fact on our last night as we paid. After many run-arounds of refiguring our bill itself, we finally decided on a price (that was later contested, twice…) and brought out “The Card.” The nun looked very confused until Jeremy pointed to the aforementioned sign. Then, “ah! We’ll see if the network is working…” They disappeared to a different room, where the sweet nun took out an instruction page and began to read. In the end, Claudia helped punch in the correct amount, Jeremy helped swipe the card correctly, and the screen finally read “transaction completed.” A huge smile graced the face of the nun at her first-ever successful credit card transaction.

Tanzania has a long way to go towards using credit cards in everyday life. But, I wonder… is it the RIGHT way for them to go?

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