However, it is not just individuals who continue to engage in bartering, it is also used by governments. And again, this is often the case when a country is facing financial woes and isolation on the world stage, such as Venezuela or Iran.
For both countries bartering has enabled them to get around US-led economic blockades.
Bartering also continues to occasionally be used by companies, such as Indonesian aircraft maker Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara (IPTN) agreeing to trade two of its transport aircraft for 110,000 tonnes of Thai sticky rice back in 1996. That was all the Thai buyer had to offer.
With the UN sanctions making it impossible for Iran to buy goods on the international markets with its own currency, Tehran started offering crude oil, and gold held in vaults abroad, in exchange for basic staples like rice, cooking oil and tea.
After the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK, the US – as well as Germany and the European Union, Iran was able to start trading normally again.
Using a method that is bit more complicated than a straight swap, Iran agrees to accept payment for its oil in Indian rupees. The money is paid into an Indian bank account operated by an Indian state-owned bank.
Iran then uses this to pay for rice and other Indian imports such as pharmaceuticals, with no money crossing banks or borders. It’s a moot point whether this bartering violates sanctions or not, but until the US removed special waivers for Iran’s main oil importers, it had become a common way to do business.
France, Germany and the UK set up a similar scheme earlier this year to allow companies in their countries to trade with Iran. The initiative is called the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchange, and it is limited to humanitarian goods, such as medicines and food items.
In Venezuela, it is not just goods that are bartered – it can be workers too. It sends 50,000 barrels of oil every day to Cuba. In return Cuba sends its highly trained doctors, teachers and economic advisors to work in Venezuela.
Most barter deals are struck when conventional avenues are blocked. says Michael Czinkota, an associate professor of international business at Georgetown University in Washington. He says this is also the case for other trade deals that are not straight cash payments, which are known collectively as “countertrades”. These can include a simple mix of barter and money, to pledges of future investment or purchases.
“The starting point for countertrades is always that something is wrong with the traditional system,” he says. “The companies I talk to who do countertrade say if they could do everything they do for money that would always be their first preference.”
Meanwhile, Shirley Mustafa, an economist at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, says such deals became more common after the 2008 financial crisis.
“Some countries lost confidence in the international trading system [so they took action],” she says.
Trading goods for other goods or services also helps governments to save precious foreign currency reserves. For this reason some countries actively seek barter or other countertrade deals, says Lindsey Shanson, editor of Countertrade and Offset magazine.
Regarding the decision of Indonesian aircraft mater IPTN to accept Thai sticky rice as payment, economist Travis Taylor says the company simply wanted to get a deal done.
“In that case it was really about building reputational capital [in a new market],” says Mr Taylor, who is an associate professor of economics at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.
“No-one wants to be stuck with tonnes of sticky rice. But this company also wanted evidence that the aircraft could be sold. So they couldn’t be picky.”
Prof Taylor adds that a specific type of countertrade deal called “offset agreements” continue to be prevalent in the global defence sector. Under these agreements defence firms agree to generate economic activity within a country over a period of time, such as buying or making components there.
Overall, he says that bartering and the other types of countertrade are here to stay, “particularly among developing countries and during times of instability”.