May I have my change, please

Thursday, 8 April 2010

by Silumesii Maboshe

If you shop in Zambia, you’ll be familiar with the round-off change phenomenon. Essentially, we have become a “no small change” zone because it is no longer practical, in our currency, to use denominations smaller than K20 (K100 in most cases). For example I have been presented before with a bill of ZMK8,526.00 for minced meat at the local SPAR and they rounded up K24 which they pocketed (although, sometimes they round down and loose some Kwacha). Why are we content to be billed amounts that are impossible to pay accurately?

As a software developer, I enjoy working through everyday problems like this one. I find the round-off problem particularly delicious because it touches several areas well before it becomes a question that software can address. Not all problems have or need software solutions.

One way to deal with the issue is to have vendors price goods to compensate. My minced meat would now cost ZMK8,500.00 or ZMK8,550.00. Problem solved? Perhaps for our local vendors but not quite for our international ones (who make a significant majority). The problem now becomes, how do they convert from Rands or US dollars or other foreign currencies to Kwacha and then price in the round-off? This could be done but I can imagine that with the daily fluctuations in exchange rates this would be an accounting nightmare.

Even if one could internally round-off, a contributor to the small values showing up at the till is our 16.5% Value-added Tax (VAT). There is a chance that even after rounding-off prices on the shelves, VAT would cause small values to show up again at the till. Why not just get rid of VAT(!). I jest but this is a “solution”!

The solution I’d be inclined to implement involves accumulating the change. Vendors would supply customer reward cards to their patrons to accumulate the loose change as well as give loyalty incentives. It would not be too long until that change added up to a pack of bubblegum or packet of crisps. But perhaps that would take too long. Besides, that would mean each vendor would have their own card which could get left at home, lost or never used in the first place.

OK, perhaps a card tied to a particular vendor would not work. How about if the card accumulated mobile phone air-time? Considering that sending a text costs K250 it would not be long until the change accumulated into something useful. Do we have a wining solution here? I think so and this could eventually be implemented as software. Among Zain, MTN and CellZ I am sure one of them could snap this idea up!

Remember, not all problems have software solutions. It is tempting for me to think so because IT is what I do. In writing this post, I hoped to demonstrate that an everyday problem like not getting the correct change at the till could have a component which software could handle quite elegantly.