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ZIMBABWE: ‘Life Is Like A Casino – We Live Each Day As It Comes’

Stanley Kwenda

HARARE, Jan 22 2009 (IPS) - Long lines of stalls, run by women, have sprung up next to many of Zimbabwe’s highways, selling honey, milk, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and chickens. As prices in towns skyrocket due to unprecedented inflation levels running in the millions, people leave their towns to purchase basic commodities.

''Entrepreneurial spirit'': A child selling spinach. Credit:  Stanley Kwenda/IPS

''Entrepreneurial spirit'': A child selling spinach. Credit: Stanley Kwenda/IPS

This precarious way of survival involves child labour and exposes the traders to dangers ranging from bad weather and disease to robbery and being run over by cars.

Children labour alongside the adults to eke out an existence. Small children as young as three years are involved in the selling of goods. This is justified by some as children being allowed to grow an enterprising spirit and to be able to work for themselves.

Usually the places of trading have no shelter or sanitary facilities, exposing people to the ravages of weather and disease.

Roadside trade can be dangerous for other reasons too. Several roadside traders have been hit by cars as they try to outrun each other to reach would-be customers on either side of the road. They are also at risk of being robbed of their earnings by the same motorists that they seek to serve.

‘‘We are aware of these dangers but there is nothing we can do. It’s like a casino: we live each day as it comes,’’ roadside trader Mai Chingwe told IPS with a resigned tone.

Another trader, who refused to be named, told IPS that she has managed to turn her life around by trading on the roadside.

‘‘I look after my four children and the three that were left by my sister who died five years ago. By selling things along this road I have managed to send them to school and buy a few goats. All I am asking for is support with agricultural inputs and fertiliser from the government and the creation of proper places where we can operate from,’’ she told IPS.

Many of the women used to travel hundreds of kilometres on an almost daily basis, perched on top of heavily loaded trucks to sell their goods at the main market in the capital of Harare.

‘‘These days business is better because motorists always pass through this place to pick up things because they have become expensive in town. If I am to take these tomatoes to town, the price will be high because I have to pay for transport in United States dollars,’’ explained Alice Borerwa, a roadside trader selling vegetables along the Harare-Mutare highway.

But where do these women get land to do market gardening in a country where it is such a contentious commodity and land ownership is based on state authorisation?

‘‘We formed a cooperative in 2005 and approached our member of parliament whom we asked to secure some land for us. We were given water-clogged land which we are now using with the help of well-wishers to do market gardening,’’ Borerwa, who is a mother of three, told IPS.

I asked her to describe a typical day for her and the 15 other members of their Kubatana Cooperative.

‘‘We wake up around four in the morning and harvest the ripe tomatoes, onions, carrots and other vegetables before watering the produce. We do this in shifts, so it’s either you are at the garden or selling along the highway.

‘‘Fortunately these days there is no need for watering the produce because of the rains. Usually we are next to the road at five am until 10 pm,’’ said Borerwa.

Most motorists now opt to drive to out of town to buy vegetables as the prices in the cities are out of reach for many urban dwellers. The prices of the produce range from 10 dollars for a 10 kg bag of tomatoes or onions to 20 dollars for five kg of mushrooms. But IPS learnt that these prices are very much negotiable, depending on availability.

Prices are also affected by stiff competition: at one roadside trading area there can be more than 50 women selling the same commodities.

In the cities and towns high prices are pegged uniformly. ‘‘I manage to sell by giving extras to those who buy more. If somebody buys things for more than 20 dollars, I will include a bunch of vegetables worth two dollars for free,’’ said Chingwe.

In some instances trade is conducted by means of barter as traders exchange commodities for household goods such as washing soap, cooking oil or even clothes.

‘‘We always try and measure what’s best for our families. If someone brings school shoes or clothes that my child can wear to school, I am more than willing to exchange these for commodities. After all, the money doesn't buy much when you go to the shops,’’ explained Chingwe.

The women have used the incomes from the roadside trade to keep their children in school and to look after them at a time when the country is on a rough political and economic path.

Millions of people have lost their jobs over the past decade in the troubled southern African country as a result of business closures in the manufacturing, service, farming and mining sectors. This has also had a devastating effect on downstream industries.

According to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), which is the country's main labour body, thousands of Zimbabweans are now roaming the streets after losing their jobs. It puts the unemployment rate at 90 percent.

The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) in its 2008 Manufacturing Report stated that companies still operating are doing so at less than 20 percent capacity. It said in the same report that the bulk of the workforce now work in the informal sector, which includes roadside trade.

The Zimbabwean government has established the small and medium enterprises development ministry but it is yet to make its mark.

But not everybody is buying at the roadside stalls. At some of the roadside markets, such as Macheke along the Harare-Mutare highway, Ngundu along the Harare-Beitbridge road and Mutoko in the north-east of Harare, trucks can still be seen carrying produce to major commodity markets in Harare and Bulawayo.

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