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Opinions of Thursday, 20 July 2006

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Foreign Currency: Misinformation Or Crooked Dealings In Ghana?

My experience with a few Forex bureaus in Ghana lately gives me cause for concern. Hopefully, my experience is not widespread. Last year, I had a run in with a Forex bureau that will not convert a $100 note into local currency because they maintain that the bank of Ghana has instructed them not to accept old dollar notes. After a heated and heady exchange, I took my money and left. Then I tried several others and the story was the same. Eventually, I found someone who will exchange it but at a lower rate. I refused his offer and brought my money back to the US. The Limousine driver at the airport was glad to take a good whiff of the same note and tuck it in his yawning pocket. When I went to my local bank over here in the US, there was not a problem or any standing orders against any such currency? So where did these Forex bureaus carve out such a hoax? Why is this story so widespread in Ghana? There is really nothing so annoying as to be told you can’t convert your money when you have burning transactions to carry out.

This year, I had another run in with a Forex bureau in Osu. The attendant refused to exchange a $100 note with the silly excuse that there was an insignificant tear on the edge of the note. This apparently happened because I had the currency in my wallet. Again, I tried to convince this attendant that the small crack does not take anything away from the currency. I told him this, “no one overseas will reject this note”. I live there and know this for a fact. I had my passport with me! All my protestation did not move him one bit. So, I took my currency and left, swearing and growling never to do business with him again. Now, prior to that experience, I changed a few notes there and got in return, smelly and worn out cedi notes. You would think that this picky for nothing businessman will do as he demands. No, not in Ghana! They won’t take mine with the small crack but will gladly give me smelly notes with much more serious tear?

What really reminded me to write this piece was what happened to a good friend of mine. He went to Merchant Bank to change a sizable amount of money. After the teller checked his currency, they reported back that it included counterfeits. As you all may or may not know, offering counterfeits for exchange is a crime in Ghana. What shocked my reliable friend was that, his currency came straight from his local bank in the US. Now he is publicly accused of peddling counterfeits. Here are some of the options. One can say, OK, these counterfeit traffickers are ahead of the banks in the US. The other option is that these tellers at the bank in Ghana are not telling the truth. The third option is that they have outdated equipment. I will let you be the judge. In the meantime, here is what my friend did, he politely asked the teller to return all the money, both good and bad currencies, and with his head bowed amidst nosy customers, walked out shamefully out of the bank. He was lucky that the teller obliged. He could have landed in jail and God knows what feast these pot-bellied police officers would have undertaken.

If you think the story has ended, shame on you! Well, he went right to the real black market and asked them to check if there were any counterfeits in his stack. Without any technology, these wayside businessmen, using finger tips and sight, confirmed that there were no counterfeits. To satisfy my friend’s anger, he did business with the wayside folks and went home with juvenile glee. Never mind the fun at various stops that he had on his way home. So, who do you trust, those with that violent light or the skilled folks at cow lane? My friend is convinced that the folks at cow lane are right. He strongly believes that, either the light at the bank is outdated or these tellers raise false alarms. The net effect of the latter is to send a customer scurrying for cover. Often, such alleged currencies will be seized, only to be reintroduced as good notes into the Ghanaian system. It was not until the next story that he confirmed his belief. Where is trust when you need it?

Another older fellow, a lawyer and well traveled gentleman that I have known over the years just told me about a strikingly similar story. In his case, he knew one of the managers at the bank so he stepped and vouched for him. Even so, he was not able to exchange his money at that bank after they declared $600 out of his stack counterfeits. Again, after verification elsewhere, it turned out that his notes were not counterfeits. What the hell is going on with these banks? Are there others with such stories? Come on! It is ok to say it! He also took his money straight from the bank in the US. In the end, he took his business outside the formal sector. Now, why is it possible to have two different equipments report different currency reading? Something is not right here and somebody better get a handle on it!!

Here is what I suggest needs to happen:

1) All banks and Forex bureaus must undergo some kind of training around what the current technology is and how to detect truthfully what real counterfeits are. Our government could liaise with the American embassy to help them on this score.

2) All banks must update their equipments. Any false alarms must be recorded and sent to the bank of Ghana for further investigation. Final results must be made part of public awareness.

3) If the government wants us to work within the legal system of doing business, it must provide or mandate some form of training for these Forex bureau folks. Just giving licenses is not enough to do business. If we are serious about tourism, we must think customer service seriously. I mean some of us know the topography so we can shout out lungs out and still find some corner to get it done. Now, some or most of these foreigners will find such experiences traumatizing. This could in turn dent our reputation or image. The net result is that we will lose prospective tourist and business people. Can we do better here?

4) All Bank of Ghana mandates must be put on file at these Forex bureaus. Enough of this he said, she said, when there is precious little time from such gamesmanship. Let them have these directives in writing so that we can read it and then take our case to the bank or authorities that be.

5) Aside of the corrupt police, give us some office or unit assigned to hear and deal with such issues expeditiously. We must not assume that all is ok when it is not. The best way to provide customer service is to provide avenues for quick resolution and solid feedback to all concerned.

6) The Bank of Ghana should withdraw all stinky cedi notes from the system ASAP. There is nothing so annoying as to be given a stack of worn out smelly notes. Image is everything. Clean notes and clean cities will begin to sell us positively. We don’t need loans from the white man for this.

7) All Forex Bureau must issue receipts. It should not be discretionary! Just issue them! Even though some have posted a note asking you to demand your receipt, they don’t issue them even if you demand it. Without receipts, how else will they pay taxes?

8) Bank of Ghana should have currency guidelines on its website and at the local airport for all travelers. Maybe the embassies too, now that they’ve found a new appetite for customer service, can carry this information on their websites. Travel agencies can help as well.

The Forex Bureaus are a welcome relief but we must ratchet up the bar to make them better. Let us not allow this system to atrophy at a time when tourism is getting ready to inch northward. Now is that time to prime all institutions that will nudge tourism forward. I hope our recalcitrant authorities will heed our humble call. To all travelers, make sure you double check your currency before you leave your base or else, your vacation or business in Ghana will morph into a nightmare. Viva Ghana!! Yes we can!!

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.