The Dollar Boys of Freetown

The leone, Sierra Leone’s currency, is not highly prized abroad. Nor is it especially strong compared to more established currencies: in 1978 when it broke from its sterling peg, the leone was worth 50p; buying 50p today would set you back 3,000 leones.
Sierra Leoneans with cash, therefore, along with importers of goods and those travelling overseas, are eager to get their hands on dollars, pounds or euros. Foreign diamond dealers, the legions of UN and NGO workers, local people who receive remittances from abroad, and the country’s dribble of masochistic travellers need leones in cash because there are no ATMs and nobody accepts credit cards.

If you don’t mind the 250-leone to the dollar spread, you can change money at foreign exchange bureaus or banks. But whereas the latter buy dollars for 3850 leones and sell them for 4100, the spread with Freetown’s Dollar Boys is a much more generous 4000-4050.

You can’t move more than a few yards in downtown Freetown without hearing the words, “Hello sir, change?” as a Dollar Boy accosts you, brandishing a large wad of leones or dollars. Dollar Boys are illegal, but their clients include government officials and ministers, big businesses and even banks in need of a liquidity top-up. The governor of the Central Bank sends someone onto the streets every day to find out how much his currency is worth. When I mention to Ahmed, a Dollar Boy of my acquaintance, that I’ve been to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he tells me he knows the building well as he provides a delivery service to ministry officials. “Even if they wanted to, the police couldn’t stop us,” he says. “We have too many customers.”

Ahmed makes around 20,000 leones (£3.30) a day – a decent sum by local standards. On his best day ever, someone (probably a diamond dealer but he doesn’t ask questions) changed $15,000 into leones – lacking that much cash himself, he had to bring in other Dollar Boys to make up the shortfall. He delivered the money in a huge box that he carried on his head through the streets of Freetown.
Although illegal, the Dollar Boys are well organised. Each one has his own patch, or “Base” – Ahmed loiters outside a bank – and each area has its own “committee,” with one central committee overseeing all the others.

The committees, which were set up on police advice after a Dollar Boy was murdered by Nigerians a few years ago, protect their members against violence and fraud (according to Ahmed, most of those who try to exchange counterfeit money are women). They also run an insurance pool, into which all members make regular payments so that if one is cheated for a large sum or suffers a family disaster, he has a cushion against bankruptcy.

The committees have two other important roles. The first is to protect the industry’s image, by investigating customer complaints, punishing bad behaviour and weeding out bad apples. The second is to vet new entrants to the market. As in the formal sector in Sierra Leone, you can only become a Dollar Boy if you have the right connections. Incumbents collude to keep out potential competitors (too many Dollar Boys, of course, would reduce each individual’s profits). Unwanted newbies – and Ahmed reports that competition to enter the fray is fierce – are told to keep away. If they refuse, the committees take them to the police and report them for acting illegally (yes, really). The police respect the committees – many of them use Dollar Boys’ services themselves – so they are usually sympathetic.