A lonely man is crossing the Savannah in his wooden horse cart, hand-painted in red, yellow and green, the national colors of Senegal. In this wide emptiness burned by the torrid Sahel sun, his unhurried whistling is the only sound one can hear within a radius of several kilometers.
Albert Carera left his hometown of Louga three hours earlier to amble slowly to his farm, located near the River Senegal more than 300 kilometers north of Dakar, close to the border with Mauritania.
Despite his primitive means of transport, the 54-year-old Carera is not a poor man. He is a landowner, thanks to money his relatives have regularly sent him from the United States and Europe. But he represents a new chapter in the old story of immigrant remittances, one built as much on tradition as modernity.
Since 1995, when western money transfer systems started operating in Africa, remittances have reshaped the continent and enriched companies like Western Union, whose first agencies in Louga opened in 1999. Western Union’s main global competitor, Moneygram, followed in 2003.
Today, the whole town is full of advertisements offering money transfer services, reflecting the fact that this city of barely 100,000 people has become Senegal’s emigration capital. More than half of its population is living outside the country, making Louga extraordinarily profitable for global money transfer agencies.
A market opportunity knocks
But the pattern is changing. Alternative ways of money transfer are springing up like mushrooms throughout Western Africa. New and inventive methods to remit the money immigrants are sending back home to support their families have been created.
Increasingly, people in the developing world are no longer willing to see so much of their hard-earned money going into the pockets of major multinational money-transfer companies, which charge commissions of 10 percent on the amount transferred.
While their lives may appear simple, people in countries like Senegal have shown remarkable creativity in setting up alternative networks to move their money globally.
People like Carera, for example, now have a wealth of choices unimaginable only a few years ago. Competition, locally and worldwide, has brought innovations and lower costs to the money-transfer system. In a direct challenge to giant companies like Western Union, African consumers are demanding, and getting, less expensive services specifically tailored to their own culture, financial possibilities and traditions.
“It is too expensive to pay 10 percent or more for every cash remittance,” Carera complains. “My daughter once sent us 10,000 â‚¬, in order to help me build this house behind there and to buy the first machines for the fields. And the money transfer agency kept 1,300 â‚¬. This is more than my daughter earns in a month!”
He shakes his head.
“But times are changing now. We do not need those agencies anymore,” Carera sneers. “We have theÂ Bana Bana now.”
Slow but familiar
In the local Wolof language, “Bana Bana” means “business man” and describes modern African “entrepreneurs.”
They are people who are permanently going between Senegal and Europe. TheÂ Bana Bana are very active in Louga, where a considerable percentage of the population is living between Senegal and Europe.
Today, the whole urban landscape of Louga is deeply marked by this back-and-forth migration: the streets are lined with modern white houses with beautiful flourishing gardens. They have been constructed with the money immigrants earned in France, Italy or Spain, and that has been brought “back to the country” by theÂ Bana Bana.
“We travel around for several months and sometimes we live abroad for various years,” said Abdoulaye, a shop owner and well knownÂ Bana Bana at Louga’s central market.
He sells products he brought from throughout Europe and spends much of the year between Rome and Lyon, where he rents two flats with friends. In his shop, you can find French cheese, Spanish washing powder and fake Italian Gucci sunglasses.
Abdoulaye wears a pair of those sunglasses, combined with a well-designed mauve t-shirt. He constantly runs his hand over his bald head, to wipe off the sweat. “I pass so many days of the year in Europe that I forget the heat in my hometown,” he says, smiling brightly.
“Sometimes, on our business travels, we indeed take with us some money for our friends here back to the country,” he explains. He speaks hesitantly, since much of theÂ Bana Bana activities are informal and illegal. “But this is only to help out our brothers to get the money their families earn in Europe.”
Obviously, this service is not free of charge, though, the cut these businessmen take generally is significantly lower than what would be paid to a formal money transfer agency. And there is another advantage: theÂ Bana Bana is always somebody you or a friend of you knows, a person you usually can trust.
The way the system works is that a family member in Europe hands cash over to one of theÂ Bana Bana, who will bring it back to the home country. The procedure is cheaper and much easier than the sophisticated Western Union system, where the sender deposits money at a money transfer agency and has to fill in a detailed form about the sender and the recipient. Then, with a password, the recipient claims the money, which is available just a few seconds after the deposit at the other side of the world.
Speed is not the advantage of theÂ Bana Bana system. A cash delivery can take a lot of time: many of those businessmen only come back to their home country once or twice a year. Consequently, some people sometimes have to wait several months to get money from their European-based relatives.
Remittances are a lifeline
Nevertheless, Carera, for one, can accept that built-in delay, as he needs every cent he can get to make his farm work – and his resources are very limited. For the last 10 years, he only had been earning a small pension after his former employer, the Senegalese state, sent him into early retirement after 25 years on the job.
That was in 1994, when a sharp devaluation of the Western African money, the Franc CFA, provoked a political and economical crisis in the region. The consequence was massive job cuts both in the private and public sectors. Since then, many elderly people in Senegal never did get other employment and are now dependent on what their children are willing to send them, whether they live in Senegal or outside the country.
Many people in Senegal today are in Carera’s situation and are able to build or rebuild their lives, thanks to the money the huge Diaspora is sending, particularly from Europe and Northern America.
Carera, like others, made the best of the situation when he lost his job. He used to work for the ministry of Agriculture and was familiar with various modern cultivation techniques. With his severance pay, he bought a small piece of land of three hectares and began to build a small clay cabin.
“It was hard to start again, but now I have my ducks, I have my four goats,” he says proudly. “And I have projects for the future.”
He spends much of the money his children send him to buy new material for his main objective – installing an irrigation system on his property.
“This little piece of land could really be a small, green paradise,” he says. “Give me just three years, maybe four.” He smiles confidently and looks out on this acre of land, which has become the center of his daily life.
A colonial-era mentality
The first to take advantage of the need for quick money transfers were big western agencies like Western Union. Western banks followed. But their attitudes toward their “poor” African clients seem stuck somewhere in the old European colonial era.
They do offer some advantages, in the eyes of Senegalese.
Those who are, for example, a SociÃ©tÃ© GÃ©nÃ©rale, BNP or Credit Agricole customer, can make a transfer to their branch offices in Senegal, paying only a fraction of what they would spend with a classical money transfer agency.
However, it actually seems Franco-Senegalese banking initiatives, or African banks like Ecobank, are aimed at the needs of Senegal’s upper-class and do not offer any services that seek to compete with Western Union or other money transfer enterprises.
“Look outside the window. We even provide Western Union services ourselves,” observes Alain Vincent, vice-president of the CrÃ©dit Agricole des Banques du SÃ©nÃ©gal, at his huge air-conditioned office in Dakar. “Our specialized transfer services may be an alternative for our clients, but not for the traditional users of international money transfer agencies.”
He views the market as the elite, not people like Carera.
“Our clients are not classical immigrants living in Europe,” Vincent adds, wiping the sweat out of his face. “They are more French people living in Senegal, or Senegalese disposing of certain… capital to invest.”
Vincent says he specializes in selling all kinds of sub-prime loans and credits to “rich Senegalese.” He also offers low-priced bank accounts to all those who have money to invest and who want to transfer it between Europe and Senegal.
He has put down roots, of sorts.
“I’ve been working in Africa for more than 20 years,” he remembers. “I first came to Senegal, then moved to Gabon. Five years ago, I decided to come back to Dakar.”
And he only travels back to France when, in his view, it is absolutely necessary.
“I have everything I need here – beaches, cheap cigarettes,” he jokes. “I only go back to Paris when our head office is complaining about something. But this rarely happens, as our customers hardly make problems. We just have a few clients, but those we have are mostly irreproachable.”
After a short break he uses to take a lusty drag on a cigarette, he continues his narrative. Times, he says, are changing.
“In times of global terrorism, there are stronger security controls. You have to understand: my accounting agents do not want to find themselves in the dungeon of Cap Marmelles. You probably have the nicest sea view of whole Africa there, but it is still a prison,” he says with a deadpan laugh and takes another drag on his cigarette.
Controls, rules, formality – these are the advantages, in his view, of western-style services for immigrant remittances.
“We simply need more guarantees – and we need to be more formal,” he adds. “If you have capital and you want serious transactions, ask us. If you want informal business, just ask theÂ Bana Bana or the Mourids”.
The way of religion
The “Mourids” are one of the biggest Muslim brotherhoods in Senegal, the second largest one after the Tidjanes community. They currently have an unprecedented updraft and are growing increasingly powerful.
The values of the Mourid community are clear and popular. Their leaders exalt the benefits of work and solidarity within the society. They also advocate order and respect for elders, which has made them very popular within governmental and presidential circles and won them progressively more public space to express themselves and preach their values.
Thanks to this influence, they truly have created an efficient and completely autarchic transaction system which, in fact, has existed in its fundamental structure for centuries.
In a country where 40 percent of the population belongs to brotherhood, many Senegalese have turned to this kind of informal network for their money transfers because it was most in harmony with their traditional culture and religion.
Religion, in fact, was always tightly linked with Senegalese trade and exerted a strong impact on the local monetary system.
“In the 200 years of our history, we always were involved in transiting money,” declares Sheikh Amadou Bamba, a descendent of the brotherhood’s founding fathers and leader of Dakar’s Mourid community.
In late morning, he often receives members of his community for an audience, or foreigners who simply want to know more about his fraternity. Comfortably seated on a massive brown sofa, he wears a large white boubou and looks very exalted and imposing for his age. He is just over 30 years old.
“Today, many of my disciples, the talibÃ©s, decide to go abroad to earn money and to support their parents,” he says.
But as they are members of this powerful and wealthy religious brotherhood, they do not have to send money back with expensive money transfer systems. “If there is an emergency,” boasts the sheikh, “we can give money to their families.”
One of his disciples arrives to serve him some fresh-grinded coffee. “Then, my talibÃ©s basically pay the money back the next time they return to Senegal – or they make an economical transfer to one of our bank accounts,” he notes.
In many cases, nearly all relatives and associates of the talibÃ©s also are Mourids and live in Dakar within the community.
“Some of them therefore plainly decide to bring or send us the money they earn and to let us distribute it,” he smiles, as he grabs a remote control and switches on his brand new LCD television.
Sheikh Bamba’s favorite series is about to begin. The audience is over.
A pipeline to the future
For Albert Carera, neither the Mourid self-sufficient transfer system nor current bank accounts are a real solution.
On the one hand, he says he believes that people like him cannot afford a bank account. “We do not have the money to maintain such an account and, above all, we cannot provide any guarantees of our liability bankers would accept.”
On the other hand, as he is not a member of the Mourid community, he is certain the brotherhood “never would accept a foreigner” in their business.
Today, Carera thus prefers to use theÂ Bana Bana system. It works for his needs – and for his ambitious dreams of future prosperity.
After digging the whole day at his property, he has to return to Louga. Some acquaintances came by and told him an “Italian businessman” will come to bring him news and money to improve his farm.
As usual, he will rent his friend’s horsecart, drive back to Louga and, through his commuting, help other people in the small dwellings near his farm.
Just before Carera leaves, a haggard, long-bearded tribal elder steps out of his simple barrack and hands him a small package. In it is the old man’s mobile phone. He promises the village chief he will bring him back his cell phone in a few days and lashes on his horse.
The phone is a sign of how Senegal is catching up with the world – and adjusting to it in its own way.
“You know, for two or three years, we have reception here and those villager’s relatives send them cell phones,” Carera says. “They just forgot that people here outside have no electricity to charge them.”
Meanwhile, the sun continues to burn on the dusty ground, making it difficult to imagine that melons, cucumbers and tomatoes can grow here at a certain time of the year. Nothing has grown green in this “garden,” everything is orange, yellow; hot, earthy colors under this clear-blue Sahel sky, toasted by a white and aggressive sun.
Carera nonetheless thinks the introduction of a modern irrigation system on his farm is more than possible, as the river is located less than 200 meters away. He only needs enough PVC rubber-tubes to link his piece of land with the Senegal River.
“A tube is 6.5 meters long,” he starts to calculate. “Each time I buy one, I am getting closer by more than six meters to my aim.” But those rubber-tubes are expensive, as the country has to import them. They cost 17.000 FCFA (nearly 30 euros) each.
Carera will therefore need the money that waits for him in Louga; nearly 40 meters of tubing are missing to fulfill his dream.
“It still requires four years, maybe five, to reach the river,” he says. “And then, I will turn this dusty, dry ground into a new paradise.”
Again, he smiles.