Women money changers keep Djibouti’s street economy thriving

The informal sector drives around two-thirds of economic activity in the country

Noura Hassan offers Djiboutian francs in exchange for US dollars to a client at a street corner where she sits cradling a bag filled with a variety of regional and international currencies in Djibouti's capital. Photo: AFP
Noura Hassan offers Djiboutian francs in exchange for US dollars to a client at a street corner where she sits cradling a bag filled with a variety of regional and international currencies in Djibouti's capital. Photo: AFP

They are a familiar sight on the busy streets of Djibouti: women clutching handbags bulging with dollars, euros, riyals and rupees, the money changers keeping the informal economy ticking over.

Perched on plastic chairs, feet propped on wooden steps, these “sarifley” as they are locally known are vital to the global cast of migrants, traders and soldiers passing through this tiny nation.

Trading in money offers a safe, reliable way especially for women to feed their families, in a conservative country where they lag men in education and literacy.

“I have it all. Euros, English pounds, Turkish lira, dollars, Indian rupees, anything,” said Medina, who offered just her first name, flashing a purse she estimated held the equivalent of one million Djiboutian francs ($5,600) in multiple currencies.

Customers and traders alike say that economic life would suffer a lot more friction without the money changers.

Camped at Rimbaud Square, overlooked by a grand mosque in the heart of Djibouti city, Medina and three other sarifley scan the bustling crowds for customers.

Before long a young man from Yemen approaches, wanting to change Saudi riyals.

Medina exchanged a few words with the foreigner, tapped some calculations into her phone, then counted out a wad of crumpled Djiboutian francs retrieved from the depths of her bag.

“We bring Saudi riyals with us [to Djibouti] because our currency keeps fluctuating all the time,” the Yemeni said.

Refugees from Yemen, migrants en route to the Gulf, foreign troops stationed in naval bases, Ethiopian truck drivers – Djibouti is a melting pot of cultures, and currencies, on the Horn of Africa.

I have it all. Euros, English pounds, Turkish lira, dollars, Indian rupees, anything

Medina, money changer, Djibouti

“We also deal with Djibouti businessmen going abroad for their work, as well as foreigners and tourists,” Noura Hassan, another sarifley in the capital, said.

When her husband died a decade ago, the mother-of-three started out with just her savings in francs, before acquiring more currencies.

Every day, Ms Hassan refers to a printout from the local bank to gauge exchange rates and determines what to offer customers for the major currencies.

“It is a good job, and I am proud of it,” the money changer said.

In PK12, a busy neighbourhood where many Ethiopians live, Ahmed jumped out of his tuk-tuk to change some Ethiopian birr on the roadside.

Ms Hassan, a sarifley, uses a pocket calculator to convert the worth of US dollars offered by a client into Djiboutian francs. Photo: AFP
Ms Hassan, a sarifley, uses a pocket calculator to convert the worth of US dollars offered by a client into Djiboutian francs. Photo: AFP

“The difference might be 10 or 20 francs, it’s not much,” said the rickshaw driver about the street rates compared with those officially on offer.

But those exchange offices are far away – whereas the sarifley are on every corner and marketplace.

“Without them, I would say that trade in PK12 would not be possible,” Faiza, a trader, said.

The informal sector drives around two-thirds of economic activity in Djibouti, researcher Abdoulkader Houssein Mohamed from the Djibouti Centre for Studies and Research said.

Of those engaged in the sector, three-quarters are women, he added.

Zahra, one sarifley in the city, wasn’t too concerned about being scammed by a forger or unscrupulous seller trying to palm off counterfeit cash.

“Even if I was asleep and you handed me a forgery, I would know ... Counterfeit cash, I’ll know. The real thing, I know. That’s my job isn’t it?”

Published: May 15, 2021 08:00 AM

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