Complementary or local currency models around the world are still in their infancy. Communities design their own currency systems, give their own values to those currencies, and use them as a way of trading alongside the country’s official money, in order to get specific environmental and social objectives along the way. The purpose is more than just to pump up trade, and keep profits within a community in order to reinvigorate a small-town economy. It’s also a way of building confidence amongst the locals, and knitting a community more closely together. Meet FLOW’s BRAND and K’Mali complementary currencies.

Mandi Smallhorne

Read More


Complementary or local currency models around the world are still in their infancy. Communities design their own currency systems, give their own values to those currencies, and use them as a way of trading alongside the country’s official money, in order to get specific environmental and social objectives along the way. The purpose is more than just to pump up trade, and keep profits within a community in order to reinvigorate a small-town economy. It’s also a way of building confidence amongst the locals, and knitting a community more closely together. Meet FLOW’s BRAND and K’Mali complementary currencies.

Mandi Smallhorne


18 May 2015: The community hall in Kokstad has been filling up with a crowd of the curious, murmuring and simmering like a pot coming to the boil. They’re here to hear Will Ruddick, a bearded American with close-cut hair, help the FLOW team to explain a strange new concept: a currency that will belong to Kokstad alone, a complementary currency. Helping Will with the translation is Aphinda Ndlobeni, affectionately known as AP, because most of the audience is Xhosa-speaking. Four women and a man have volunteered for an evening of currency simulation, where they will play a fun game that explains how complementary currencies work.

But Will is confident; he’s done this before, with people in Kenya.

‘Let’s say you want to trade chickens for vegetables,’ he says. ‘How would you do that? ’The crowd gets involved as a robust round of trading follows, where the volunteers discover that fixing a value for a chicken is not so easy. Now Will hands each volunteer vouchers, each of which has a specific value.

‘First they bartered; then they used [the vouchers], and they saw how much easier it actually is to use currency instead of bartering,’ John Ziniades, FLOW co-creator and implementer, explains. ‘Once the rules had been explained, there was a sudden frenzied burst of excited conversation and activity as the group traded vouchers onstage. Will, of course, couldn’t understand a word and just had to step back and surrender to the process.’

This May evening in Kokstad was the first of several preparing the local community for the July launch of the K’Mali, Kokstad’s very own complementary currency (‘imali’ means ‘money’ in Xhosa, the most common indigenous language spoken in Kokstad). A parallel process had already entrenched the concept in the Bergrivier region of the Western Cape, where the launch of the BRAND currency (‘B’ for Bergrivier, coupled with the South African Rand) was just days away.

Complementary currencies, which sit alongside national currencies, have emerged in different contexts to address objectives that traditional money cannot. In particular, community or local currencies (which are a subset of complementary currencies) are introduced and used by a designated community within a particular geographical area. A surprising number across the world (the Complementary Currency Research Group estimates the total number to be over 3,800) are meeting a number of diverse needs in countries such as Brazil, Germany, UK, France, Japan, Switzerland and the USA. These currencies can be paper-based or digital and are used as a medium of exchange. Instead of offering a direct trade – ‘my plumbing expertise for your sourdough loaves’, for example – the currency becomes a placeholder for the trade: ‘Take this voucher for your loaves and you can exchange it for some other goods or services from a participating member when you need it.’

Because complementary currencies only operate in a clearly defined and quite small area, they keep value circulating within the local economy, instead of letting it leak away to major economic hubs.

The K’Mali and the BRAND were the key ingredients in FLOW’s recipe, which was designed to knit communities more closely, boost local trade, amp up a sense of community pride and power, and nurture an ability to ‘bounce’ – to cope better with challenges and to thrive.

Local money, local power

‘We were not complementary currency experts, but I was very inspired by the papers Will Ruddick had written,’ says John. Will had designed and implemented a community currency in Kenya, called the Eco-Pesa, where people were paid in Eco-Pesa for collecting waste, planting trees and other things that helped their environment. They could then spend it with local businesses who had signed up. ‘He was on the path that we were on, aligning good behaviour with this currency.’

The currency aspect of the initial FLOW funding proposal was based on the Eco-Pesa design – a donor-backed currency, where a donor provides funding in national currency as backing for vouchers, which are then used to fund specific desired activities such as environmental restoration (through waste collection, for example) and health activities. These vouchers circulate in the local business network and are eventually exchanged back in return for national currency.

Will’s next iteration of his currency in Kenya is a mutual credit-based design, backed by the goods and services of participating business network members. When Will joined the FLOW team, he felt that this design was more suitable for the local context and application.

Complementary currencies enable people without enough of the national currency – because they don’t have a formal job, perhaps – to have a way of exchanging value. A complementary currency can also be a way of encouraging certain desirable behaviours, such as caring for the elderly, vaccinating babies and recycling (this was the drive behind the Eco-Pesa, for example). In Kansas City, as Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer describe in Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies, students at the University of Missouri have to earn Buckaroos by doing community service in order to pay university fees.

Another example is a plan to develop a currency called the Saber (‘knowledge’ in Portuguese) to increase literacy in Brazil. The currency would be used by school children to pay for mentoring and tutoring from older children, trickling up until learners graduated, and could use their Sabers in part payment for university fees.

The conventional money system is set up in such a way that it concentrates wealth, and this works to destroy social capital, as Emeritus Professor Dennis Meadows with the Club of Rome notes in his foreword to Money and Sustainability: The Missing Link (2012). He adds that it inevitably sets up ‘boom and bust’ cycles. Creating and using complementary currencies offers societies an invaluable tool for resilience.

Having additional currencies available with which to conduct business has proven crucial in situations where the national currency is under stress. Based in Zurich, the Swiss WIR was founded in 1934 as a direct response to the Great Depression, and is the most successful example of a complementary currency that helps buffer local economies from external shocks. Research has shown that the WIR has a counter-cyclical effect – when the Swiss economy is stressed and there is limited circulation of the Swiss Franc, more people use the WIR, and vice versa when the economy is strong.

The FLOW core team saw these as positive possibilities that could be regenerative, building social cohesion, a sense of personal agency. It was also recognised that with targeted interventions, it could play a part in reconnecting people, not only with each other, but also with the systems and sources of the things that make urban life possible: water supply, food supply, energy provision and sanitation. Perhaps most importantly, people who learn to reimagine their currency – one of the bedrock facets of life – would have acquired a precious skill: to be able to ask ‘Why does it have to be this way?’

In practice

The speed with which people in both towns embraced the concept of the complementary currency amazed the team. ‘I was quite disappointed in the first currency evening in Piketberg,’ says Ian Schaffers, FLOW project co-ordinator in Berg-rivier. ‘But the second one blew me away – people grasped the idea very quickly and were quite willing to raise their concerns.’

The BRAND launched on 30 May 2015, followed by the K’Mali on 18 July, with a ceremony during which interested businesses and key individuals signed on, agreeing to use the currencies and to accept a proportion of payments in the local currency (usually ten percent).

In the months that followed, the currencies developed differently in the two regions. In Bergrivier, municipal officials quickly got the idea that this tool could circulate value through their region, and became involved in on-going conversations with the FLOW team about how best to integrate the BRAND into the local economy. Ian notes that their interest was not purely altruistic: ‘They needed to be seen to be doing something for the community’.

In Kokstad, on the other hand, the local municipality was largely uninvolved, but FLOW’s Kokstad project co-ordinator Piet Bosman had a web of contacts throughout the town, and that worked in the programme’s favour. Piet was able to get big business on board, and soon key local retailers like Pick n Pay and Spar (both of them major national supermarket chains), the Link pharmacy (always a hive of activity) and Kokstad Copiers, were displaying K’Mali-branded posters indicating that they accepted K’Mali. For them it was also not a purely altruistic decision – many saw it as a corporate social responsibility programme, a commitment to the community, which would impress customers, John Ziniades notes.

The end of the beginning

The next 11 months were a roller-coaster ride that showed the team the bottlenecks that hampered the currency in each region. For example, in Kokstad the large trusted national retailers such as Pick n Pay tended to accumulate K’Mali and the smaller downstream business barely traded in K’Mali at all: the money was piling up, rather like river debris snagging on a rock, instead of moving freely through the town. In addition, the communities naturally needed time to build trust in this very new concept.

‘With hindsight, we should have spent more time on designing currency systems that were tailor-made for the features of each community, rather than importing a ready-made design from elsewhere,’ says John.

And as June 2016 drew to a close, both currencies seemed to be in the doldrums. The team were feeling a little despondent. But then they made a trip to Kokstad for an event that would wrap up their work in the town.

On a wintry afternoon, the restaurant at the upmarket Imbali Guest House (a K’Mali supporter), is darkened so the audience can see John’s PowerPoint presentation about the K’Mali. He formally hands over the K’Mali to Piet Bosman, who will carry the currency forward under the banner of the Mount Currie Community Development Organisation (MCCDO).

And then a woman who’s new to the idea of a complementary currency raises her hand to ask a question. She’s wearing a jacket of vivid colours, and a stylish iteration of the African doek (headscarf) swirls around her head. She wants to know about using the K’Mali as a means to support the exchange of food specifically. She is full of brilliant ideas, which set off a rustle of interest in the audience. Piet urges her to join the MCCDO.

The room is full of important people who are at the core of retailing in Kokstad: the municipal manager is here; so is one of the Christodolou brothers who own the Spar franchise in Kokstad; and sitting quietly to one side is a member of management from the large retail chain, Pick n Pay. There’s interest from a young woman who has only recently come to live in Kokstad; there are others here who are clearly new to the concept, but excited by it. It’s a clear sign that the idea of the K’Mali is percolating slowly through the town.

A couple of weeks later, in Bergrivier, another sign of the currency concept taking hold at a deep level surfaces: the Bergrivier municipality, where public transport is a major issue, is proposing a solar-powered ‘Tuk-Tuk’ service (‘Tuk-Tuks’ are golf cart-style vehicles), which would accept only BRANDs in payment. In fact, the name being mooted for the service is the B5, the ‘five BRAND route.’

Complementary currencies never take off instantly or achieve universal adoption, John points out. Some necessary tweaking will happen along the long road to a sturdy currency. ‘It’s a lot harder to get people to change than we think,’ he says. ‘And people’s habits of use, particularly in terms of money, are among the hardest of all to change. And that long road means that it’s too early to judge whether the currencies have succeeded or failed. But recent developments are reason for hope.’

The Kokstad Q&A session comes to an end. The lights come on and the group breaks up into little groups, drifting towards the back of the room to sample Imbali’s fragrant scones with jam. At the front of the room, Piet Bosman is engaged in a deep exchange with one of the audience who still has some questions. At the back, around the tea table, overheard fragments of conversation reveal that several people are engaged in discussions about the currency’s viability. The K’Mali, like the BRAND, is plainly developing a life of its own.

Local enterprises are more likely to employ local people, provide services to improve the local quality of life, spend money locally and so circulate wealth in the community, promote community cohesion and, by reducing transportation of goods from across communities, are likely to have a smaller environmental footprint.

New Economics Foundation (NEF)

Plugging the Leaks, 2008

‘…the monoculture of national currencies, justified on the basis of market efficiency, generates structural instability in our global financial system. Economic sustainability therefore requires diversification in types of currencies, specifically through complementary currencies.’

Bernard Lietaer

Is Our Monetary Structure a Systemic

Cause for Financial Instability?

April 2010

We will never create sustainability while immersed in the present financial system. There is no tax, or interest rate, or disclosure requirement that can overcome the many ways that the current money system blocks sustainability. I used not to think this. Indeed I did not think about the money system at all. I took it for granted as a neutral and inevitable aspect of human society. […] I now understand… that the prevailing financial system is incompatible with sustainability.

Dennis Meadows

Money and Sustainability: The Missing Link


Something bigger at work

A series of ‘currency evenings’ leading up to the launch of the K’Mali and BRAND complementary currencies allowed the FLOW Ambassadors to familiarise their communities with the notion of this parallel way of exchange.

It was more than that, though. It was also a space for the ambassadors to test their new skills as community organisers and lobbyists for their ideas. And it was a space for the FLOW organising team to trust their young recruits.

In 2015, as winter approached and the evenings got chilly, people still braved the cold to turn up in numbers – between 50 and 80 people at each event – and get involved.

‘We’d just sit back and leave it in the hands of the ambassadors and local co-ordinators. We could only trust that whatever work we’d done with them before, whatever training we’d given, that was enough for them to be able to focus and engage with their community in their own way,’ says John Ziniades. ‘There was something bigger here than my anxious perfectionist self, it needed to flow in the way it flowed.’

A thread running through the project, John says, was ‘this feeling of surrender, and deep trust’.

‘One of the things that struck me was that, in both Bergrivier and Kokstad, the community always chose to open [events] with a prayer, a handing over to the ‘divine’,’ he recalls. ‘There was a kind of mirroring in this practice for me. I similarly felt that the FLOW team needed to allow things to unfold in their own way.’ MS

Local pride

How do you dream up a new currency? What should it look like? The FLOW team had been designing a programme on the fly, responding to real-time feedback from the two communities. Now, as the reality of the first complementary currency launch drew inexorably closer, they found themselves working on the design of a currency that was by the community, for the community.

The currency evenings in both towns, where the concept and workings of the currency had been explained, had been full of energy, vibrancy and a kind of local pride that needed to be reflected in the actual notes.

Designer Dan Goodman used colours that had an instant familiarity, echoing the national currency of South Africa. ‘The imagery is quite different, though, reflecting ideas that were developed with the communities,’ says Dan, ‘with words that spelt those ideas out.’ The K’Mali 10 has a stylised maize cob against the silhouette of Mount Curry, which dominates the Kokstad skyline, and the words: Kokstad – kos vir die toekoms (Kokstad – food for the future). The K’Mali 50 shows a heart against the mountain, and the message is ‘Kokstad – batho pele’ (‘Kokstad – people first’).

‘It needed to have authority, and not just look like a naïve artwork,’ says Dan. ‘It was kind of straddling a line between something that was very local, but also something that people wanted to aspire to,’ he says. ‘So we added all the special security features – not just to make it safe, but also just to make it feel special, to make someone feel proud taking it out of their wallet, and feel that it has worth.’


Tuk-Tuks for town-hopping

The people of Piketberg have a mobility problem: the shortage of public transport hampers their movements around the town.

And the municipality has a plan: they intend buying a fleet of solar powered Tuk-Tuk-style taxis, and setting up the ‘B5’ taxi route (the BRAND route). The idea is that the municipality then rents these to local taxi drivers, explains John, who pay for the vehicles with BRAND and Rand.

‘The driver then allows their customers to pay their taxi fare with either BRAND or Rand,’ he says. ‘The BRAND that the driver accumulates can then be spent at participating businesses in the BRAND network, or used to pay rent to the municipality for the Tuk-Tuks. Rinse, and repeat!’

The municipality can help drive the currency’s uptake, by insisting that locals pay for the taxi fare with BRAND.

They can also initiate community projects, such as clearing alien vegetation, litter collection, or tending urban food gardens. These jobs can all be paid for with the BRAND, giving locals currency with which they can pay their taxi fares.

This is how ‘bespoke’ a community currency design needs to be, concludes John. You find the burning issue in the community – like the transport shortage in Piketberg – and align the currency with that need. LJ

Community members and businesses signed up to participate in the K’Mali currency at the launch

Learning to fly

’We made a rookie mistake with the design of our local currencies,’ says John, showing the kind of self-reflection that the team have tried to build in the ambassador recruits.

‘We imported a complementary currency ‘voets-toets’ (‘as is’) that was designed specifically for the Kenyan small business environment, and assumed that the trading conditions were similar.’

The Eco-Pesa had taught them some early lessons in Kenya, and when John, FLOW’s money-man, read about its design, he thought it would be a great fit for Bergrivier and Kokstad.

But now that they’ve done a trial run of these currencies, they see where the design mistakes were.

South Africa’s economy is much closer to that of a developed world context: highly industrialised, with strong and established supply chains that are often dominated by large corporations. Kenya’s is more like that of a developing world country, meaning that smaller businesses are the beating heart of much of the economy.

‘In Kenya, micro-small enterprises – MSEs – contribute 72% of Kenya’s non-agricultural employment,’ says John. The average for sub-Saharan Africa is at 75%.

‘And these micro small enterprises contribute 25% to Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP). So these small businesses are very important to the economy.’

Moreover, these are really small operations: 97% of them consist of one to five people in total; 70% of them are just one-person operations.

Conversely, South Africa’s equivalent MSE’s (outside of the agri-sector) is only 18%, and their contribution to the GDP is just over 10%.

A business community like Piketberg’s demonstrates the problem:

small vendors are still buying their stock from large mostly national retail chains, and then selling that on. This means they’re locked into trading with the official Rand, and the profits leave the community and go into the pockets of the national chains.

‘We discovered this after the fact,’ he says, pragmatically.

‘We were trying to introduce this local currency on top of a local trading network of small businesses that doesn’t exist in South Africa to the same extent as it does in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Growing local economies in South Africa would be a far harder task, requiring more bespoke, local currency interventions.’

This, the team argues, is typical of what ‘adaptive capacity’ is: learning as they ‘do’.

‘It’s a bit like building the plane while you’re already in the air, flying it,’ they joke.

But beneath their humour is an important ethos. Building adaptive capacity in people and communities in a project like this calls for flexibility, constant self-reflection, and changing their plans and approaches as they learn and respond.

John’s take-home message from the currency rollout: there’s no such thing as a plug-and-play package in the world of community currencies; you need to custom-make each one for the context in which it’s going to be used. It takes time for a currency to get a critical mass of people using it, so that it gains enough momentum to keep circulating. And it would help if it had a big backer, like the local municipality who can make a policy decision to link a local service to the currency. LJ

Freshly grown produce for sale at the Piket-Bo-Berg monthly farmers’ market
Sydelle Willow Smith

If a single currency is like a concrete channel designed to carry the maximum amount of water, multiple [complementary] currencies are like wetlands designed to maximise the buffering of the water level in times of drought and flood.

Chris Martensen

The Crash Course, 2011

Teacher-turned-farmer Merle Dietrich understands the value of trading without cash. Goedverwacht locals still barter skills and goods
Sydelle Willow Smith

Everyone, a farmer

Goedverwacht farmer, Merle Dietrich, knows first-hand the benefits of growing veggies in this small community: it means she has fresh produce for her home, and a surplus to sell to neighbours or some of the smaller independent shops here in the valley, or in nearby Piketberg.

But because of the unusual nature of the local economy, her veggies are a form of currency in their own right.

‘Sometimes I’ll take broccoli or cabbage down to the bakery, and exchange it for bread,’ she explains, saying the barter system works well in this small farming community. ‘Or, if I need to use a plough from the local mechanisation centre, I’ll exchange some of my fresh veggies for equipment hire.’

She’ll also sometimes give them veggies on credit, so when planting time comes, she’s already paid for the ploughing services.

Selling locally also means she doesn’t have to rack up additional expenses on packaging, shipping, or freezing her produce, leaving more profit to till back into the farm or support herself.LJ

Physic for ailing economies

In the middle of 2013, Will Ruddick was thrown into jail outside Mombasa, Kenya, accused of master-minding a terror plot because of his work in launching a community currency. It was an act seen as worryingly subversive by the authorities.

Less than a decade earlier, he’d been doing graduate work in high-energy physics at the University of Colorado Boulder.

After completing graduate school five years earlier, Will found his lasting passion when he came to Kenya with the Peace Corps to teach maths and science. Joining the Peace Corps was ‘a means for learning development finance,’ he says. Using the tools of a physicist to analyse what he saw in Kenya, he realised that people had plenty of assets and skills, but very little money. Money is simply a medium of exchange, he realised, a way of measuring goods against goods, services against services, and all the possible permutations of exchange. ‘How much excess capacity are we not tapping into as a result?’ he wondered.

Will started by designing the Eco-Pesa (‘pesa’ is Swahili for ‘money’), where environmentally helpful activities were paid with a donor-funded voucher that could be exchanged for conventional currency – a way to ensure better use of donor funds.

Then he designed the Bangla-Pesa, his first true complementary currency. Bangla-Pesa is only used in the Bangladesh shanty-town in Mombasa, where Will now lives. It’s a system of ‘vouchers’ – much like the K’Mali and BRAND, available in various fixed amounts, which can be exchanged for goods and services.

Since then, he’s launched another three currencies in Kenya and is working with groups in Uganda and Nigeria to set up currencies there.


Real solutions for real problems

‘We were presenting something quite wild and outlandish, in many respects, to people who could really buy into what we were speaking about, and not just that, but take ownership of it and re-present things in their own ways,’ says Dan Goodman, remembering the energy and excitement of the FLOW currency evenings in both Bergrivier and Kokstad.

Dan was an integral part of FLOW from its inception. Born and raised in Cape Town, he started using design skills very early on, in high school. After a gap year in London and a graphic design course in his home town at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, he spent a year in a small design studio before starting his own business in 2008.

But he had, he says, ’quite a strong desire to apply my skills to as broad a range of projects as possible. There was a kind of restless tension of wanting to work in more socially conscious projects.’

Social justice and community development were virtually in his blood, as both his parents worked in the non-governmental organisation arena. Dan’s mother then introduced him to John and Anna, who had rolled out the Green Ambassadors programme in Kokstad. They were thinking about how this concept could be revived and used elsewhere, perhaps in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town where the FLOW co-founders live.

Not long afterwards, the FLOW proposal was on the table, and Anna and John invited Dan to be a part of it. ‘I wasn’t looking for typical design work,’ says Dan. ‘A lot of what I did was helping to shape the programme. Dan also did a lot of on-the-ground work – training FLOW Ambassadors on the computers, helping them with set-up, and finding technical solutions for issues relating to the baseline surveys. He also got very involved in the currency, and the design of it.

Dan found it very satisfying ‘working on the ground with people who have real problems that need solving, but also there’s a real eagerness in terms of people wanting to take charge of their communities.’ For him, it was a ‘great thing to be able to work with people as opposed to brands’. But besides that, he says, FLOW was like coming home. ‘I was working together with like-minded people and trying to actually bring our ideals to life.’


If a single currency is like a concrete channel designed to carry the maximum amount of water, multiple [complementary] currencies are like wetlands designed to maximise the buffering of the water level in times of drought and flood.

Chris Martensen

The Crash Course, 2011

Advertorial in local Kokstad newspaper showcasing the way that Kokstad Exchange Network (KEN) members each support the K’Mali