Cash economy

Dahabshiil - the closest thing to a bank.

When I came to Somaliland, I brought a wad of cash with me. That’s because, once I got here, there would be no way for me to access my money back home in the UK or US – Somaliland has no ATMs and no banks. Yes, you read that correctly – Somaliland is essentially an unbanked, cash-bashed economy. Your regular credit and debit cards are totally useless here. Traveller’s cheques aren’t going to help you out either.

The closest thing to a bank in Somaliland is Dahabshiil, which is really more of a remittances / international money transfer company than a bank. It’s Somaliland’s answer to Western Union, enabling the Somali diaspora community to send money back home to family and friends in the Horn of Africa through a network of 400 branches across 144 countries.

You also have the option to open an account directly with Dahabshiil in Hargeisa, which some of my co-workers have done to avoid stashing all of their money under their mattress. Indeed, when we are paid at the end of the month, we are paid by check which we have to go to a Dahabshiil branch to cash.

But, even if you do open an account with Dahabshiil and deposit some of your money in it, there is no way you could transfer your money from that account to any other bank, because Dahabshiil is totally unconnected to the international banking system. The only way you could get your money out of Somaliland is to carry it out in hard cash or transfer it to a Dahabshiil branch/agent abroad (e.g. in the US or UK) where you would have to collect the money in person.

While frustrating and impractical for expatriates such as myself, the system is not as stuck in the stone ages at it seems. Dahabshiil has even introduced a sort of payment card which can be used in lieu of cash at a very select number of retailers in town.  Just like paying by debit card back home, you insert your card and type in a code (except, unlike internationally recognized bank cards, your Dahabshiil card won’t work anywhere outside of Somaliland). And it is also possible to send payment via mobile phone and online. It still would be nice to have an ATM, though…

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