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ZIMBABWE: Beating the Housing Blues

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO , Jun 9 2011 (IPS) - Every month Cynthia Dube and the nine other women from her co-operative make sure they sell enough clothes and appliances to put 100 dollars each in a joint savings. When they have enough money, they will buy each member a plot of land. And eventually they will help each other build their own homes.

Zimbabwe is a country where the unstable economy makes it almost impossible for a working person to own a home. Industry experts say the housing market survives on money from Zimbabweans living and working abroad, so these women have an opportunity of a lifetime.

This group of female cross-border traders has formed a savings co-operative where they first buy each other plots of land and will eventually build each others houses. And they do not have to live and work abroad to do it.

“We decided to pool our earnings toward buying housing stands first, then after that we assist each other build homes of our choice,” Dube, the brains behind the project, said.

Dube’s co-operative is made of 10 women cross-border traders who have risen to become Bulawayo’s middle class. The women earn a living buying clothes and household electrical goods in South Africa and Botswana for resale in Bulawayo. Through their enterprise many of the women can afford the trappings previously associated with formal gainful employment: vehicles and good schools for their children.

“It has always been difficult for ordinary people to own a house, but we thought that with the kind of money we are able to make on a good month, it would be wise to invest it in something permanent and we decided on housing stands and houses,” Dube said.

The 10 members each contribute 100 dollars a month, and this goes towards purchasing a stand situated at a residential area of the beneficiary’s choice.

Prices of housing stands in Bulawayo vary from anything between 1,000 dollars in the high-density areas to 5,000 dollars in low-density areas. Dube said building a house in the high-density areas can cost up to 5,000 dollars – depending on the size and kind of house.

“If a member seeks to build a house where the stands are more than the co-operative’s contribution, they meet the difference themselves, but when the cycle of buying the stands is complete, we channel the funds towards the building of the house itself.”

It’s a swell arrangement envied by many here in an economy where salaries of professionals such as teachers and nurses remain stagnant. The 100 dollar monthly contribution from the women is about half of a civil servant’s salary.

“It has made some of us work harder,” says Sithandazile Nxumalo, a member of the co-operative.

“We are in a business where not all months offer the same returns so one has to work double hard to make sure you do not default on contributions,” she said.

Housing co-operatives have a historic presence in Bulawayo but have virtually been impossible to sustain and keep active because of poor incomes. Yet with the upsurge of the informal sector, which has become the country’s biggest employer, co-operatives are slowly re-emerging.

Thomson Mhashu, a property analyst and estate agent says the pooling of financial resources by individuals provides hope for prospective homeowners.

“We have seen over the years housing co-operatives formed by people who have no constant source of income folding amid acrimonious infighting. But I think what will sustain these women is the fact that they realised they have a constant source of money,” he said.

“This will work as long as there is transparency with the finances,” Mhashu added.

Like many here who distrust banking institutions with their money, this co-operative has no desire to deposit their earnings in a bank.

“We have discussed it before (opening a bank account), but all members did not see any reason for as they themselves do not keep their money in the bank for various reasons,” Dube said.

Dube said one member keeps the cash in a safe, while another keeps the keys to the safe.

“Of course we are all worried about money being misused. But we think this arrangement works because two (members) would have to collude to access the money,” Dube said.

Just recently, finance minister Tendai Biti took local banks to task accusing them of “squandering depositors’ money,” and this has not helped well-intentioned initiatives like this housing co-operative, which would otherwise benefit from earning interest on their savings.

“It is already a known fact that banks will not give us housing loans so why put your money there?” Dube asks.

Mhashu said the resourcefulness that has emerged from the country’s economic hardships strikes him.

“If some can pool their money together to build their own homes, surely it must be reason enough for other financiers to come in and assist,” Mhashu said. “It is sad that we have become a country where only people working outside Zimbabwe can afford houses.”

As the country embarks on a massive indigenisation drive, there are concerns that women such as Dube, with the skills and determination to improve their lot in life, will be left behind despite their capabilities.

Early this year, Indigenous Business Women Organisation (IBWO) president Jane Mutasa lamented that women were still without access to financial resources as the country embarked on indigenisation. She told state media that the indigenisation regulations, which are aimed at benefiting previously disadvantaged Zimbabweans, are framed in a manner that does not support the participation of women in the mainstream economy.

But the modest success of women like Dube and her co-operative partners continue to contribute to the local economy through sheer hard work.

“We have heard about other co-operatives that buy each other these ex-Japan vehicles (which have become ubiquitous in the city of Bulawayo), but I think for me and my colleagues, the ultimate achievement is to own houses,” Dube said.

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