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Generation C: Shanga Mbuli – The Community Currency User

A 42-year-old father of six, Shanga Mbuli lives in the small Kenyan village of Miyani, just a few kilometers from the ocean, where he catches shrimp to sell to fellow villagers. The nearest city is Mombasa, but Mbuli’s life as a rural farmer doesn’t include many visits there. Most of his buying and selling takes place among other community members. Since 2017, he’s been using a community currency established by the non-profit Grassroots Economics to exchange local goods and services, called Sarafu.

Sarafu is a digital currency built on blockchain technology so that users can trade it with trust. It was designed for villages that are full of people with goods and services to offer, but little government-issued currency to spend. In Mbuli’s 6,000-person community, nearly all are registered with the Sarafu Network. Mbuli accepts Sarafu in exchange for shrimp he catches and maize he grows on his farm, and uses it to pay for rice and services like transportation and maize grinding. He likes Sarafu because he finds it to be secure, and it makes his community “more connected,” he told me one evening in mid-March while walking to the nearby river to fetch water. Kids passing by and roosters calling sounded in the background.

At that time, Kenya had just one confirmed case of coronavirus, in its capital city, Nairobi. By the time we caught up again on Sunday, April 4, no cases had made it over to Mbuli’s rural community, but people there were preparing. City-dwellers from Mombasa were returning to their families in rural villages like his in time for a shelter-in-place order to go into effect on April 11, and some could have been carrying the virus. Most in Mbuli’s village were readying to be confined to their homes for at least 21 days. Mbuli had stockpiled enough food for “at least two to three years.”

“People are now purchasing a lot of food through Sarafu so they can have a stock in their house to feed their families during the time of the virus,” Mbuli says. The day before we spoke, Mbuli sold almost 100,000 Kenya Shillings worth of maize in Sarafu, compared to the usually 15,000 or 20,000 worth he might sell daily.

Sarafu’s user numbers have gone up, too, with the return of people from Mombasa to Mbuli’s village. “Those in Mombasa weren’t registered, so more people have been registered this week and are using more Sarafu,” he says, since the currency is local. “The more you use Sarafu, the more you save Kenya Shillings,” which are often the only currency accepted at institutions like schools.

There’s another upside to using Sarafu over Kenya Shillings during the Covid-19 outbreak – users don’t have to touch it. They can just send Sarafu through their phones, a convenience that will likely outlast its temporary usefulness during a viral outbreak.

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