News | Inequality / Social Struggles - Analysis of Capitalism - Gender Relations - State / Democracy - Economic / Social Policy - Africa - Southern Africa - Corona Crisis Female Traders in Zimbabwe

Economic struggles amidst the COVID-19 pandemic



Nyaradzo Ruwisi,

Rosemary Pamire and her daughter Anna wash bottles for recycling at their home during a nationwide lockdown to help curb the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread in Harare, Zimbabwe, May 9, 2020. Picture taken May 9, 2020. picture alliance / REUTERS | Philimon Bulawayo

Sanelisiwe Ndlovu is a cross-border trader from Zimbabwe, currently stranded due to the closure of borders—one of the measures implemented to contain COVID-19 in the region. Her case is representative of women from various Zimbabwean cities and towns who earn a living by catching evening buses and crossing the Limpopo river into South Africa to buy food, furniture, and clothing for resale back in Zimbabwe. These women spend three or more days on the road and come back to deliver orders or to sell their merchandise from door to door. Their trips are repeated weekly, fortnightly or monthly, depending on the growth of the business. With borders closed and informal traders not allowed to operate under the lockdown regulations, women like Sane, as her friends call her, are struggling to fend for their families. This pandemic is a blow to women living in Zimbabwe, at a time when the economy is on a free fall and prices of goods change every other day.

Nyaradzo Ruwisi is an author based in Zimbabwe. She writes here under a pseudonym.

Across the world, it is widely recognized that crises, and this one in particular, do not impact all individuals and communities equally. In the case of Zimbabwe, the pandemic is affecting the poor the most, and the poor are predominantly female. Indeed, women and girls are struggling with both their country’s persistent economic crisis and the global pandemic. The only trades they knew to survive prior to COVID-19 have been hit the hardest during the emergency. The pandemic has exposed the government’s inability to provide safety nets for its citizens, and notably to enact gender-sensitive responses in times of crisis.

Zimbabwe: A Trading Nation amidst COVID-19

On 24 March 2020 Botswana shut its borders. Two days later, South Africa followed in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. With over 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of June 2020, the latter has the highest number of cases in the Southern African region. The shutdown was devastating for Zimbabwean traders, who rely on importing goods from both countries for resale at home. The Zimbabwean government also began a nationwide lockdown on 30 March, which was slightly eased and extended indefinitely on 16 May. Public activities were banned while informal markets ceased operations. Exceptions were made for food, fuel traders, and health facilities.

Zimbabwe is estimated to have the largest informal sector in Africa, and the second-largest in the world after Bolivia, representing approximately 60 percent of the economy. With close to zero goods manufactured locally, Zimbabwe has become an import-reliant country, with most goods consumed locally coming from South Africa, Botswana, and China. Over two decades of deindustrialization, the country has seen tens of thousands of jobs lost. College and university graduates face bleak prospects on the job market. Many have left the country, and those who have remained were forced to join the informal sector. With a passport and a little capital to start, women encourage each other to join the informal trade—buying goods from abroad and selling them locally.

Regardless of gender, the informal sector has been the only way to avert poverty, as underemployment and unemployment levels range between 5 to 90 percent, depending on how one chooses to define the informal economy. Workers in the sector are active in the agricultural industry, the mining sectors, home industries,[1] social markets [2] and trading, among many others. When COVID-19 ravaged the Global North, most people did not expect the disease to affect Southern Africa as it has, especially at the economic level. The closure of borders has been a major setback for women who, according to a report by the Samp Migration Policy Series, make up an estimated 70-80 percent of informal cross-border traders in Southern Africa.

The estimated figures on informal cross-border trade mentioned above can be replicated to Zimbabwe, given that over 80 percent of its 3.5 million micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) are not registered. Attempts have been made to formalize the sector through unionizing and the creation of various associations. However, many informal traders remain unaccounted for, and still put food on the table through trading. The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) has an estimated 200,000 members employed in street vending, construction work, and other informal jobs. Sixty percent of their members are women.

According to the United Nations International Trade Centre, in 2016, South Africa’s exports to Zimbabwe were valued at over 2 billion US dollars compared to imports of just over 380 million. Since traders tend to smuggle goods or under-declare what they have bought from South Africa, real figures potentially surpass this. Clearly, a pandemic like COVID-19, which leads to the closure of borders, spells disaster for Zimbabwe’s consumer market and those who work in it—in this case, the women anchoring the system.

The Women in Zimbabwe’s Informal Sector

Women entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe dominate the informal sector, accounting for 67 percent of small-, micro-, and medium-sized tourism enterprises (SMEs). They are involved in cross-border trading, agriculture, dairy farming, crafts, food vending, selling groceries, clothing, and footwear among other trades. Eighty percent of these women are aged between 25 and 54, and half of them are the main breadwinner in their families. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the majority of these traders had low levels of formal education, while today a substantial percentage of female cross-border traders have secondary school qualifications and in many cases even a diploma and/or university degree. For these women, trade ensures survival, which is food on the table, rentals, and basic education for their children and extended family. For a lucky few, informal trading activities even generate a bit of wealth. In the Zimbabwean context, this means buying a stand, building a house, buying a vehicle, and enrolling their children in secondary school.

Crossing the border to buy and sell goods has been profitable in different ways. Earning money or being in a position to buy and sell foreign currencies on the black market has been beneficial for most cross-border traders. Zimbabwe’s economic system can be confusing to those who have not lived in the country, and the history and complexity of the Zimbabwean currency require a crash course. Put into simple terms, the country uses a surrogate currency known as the “bond note” which can only be used in Zimbabwe. The inflation rate is estimated to be at 786 percent as of May 2020, aggravating an already dire situation in which female traders’ precarious livelihoods are jeopardized by the harsh economic conditions and the pandemic.

The Impacts of COVID-19 on Female Traders

Since the closure of borders, those who import and sell groceries were forced to consume their stocks for their survival. Those who sell clothes and other goods had to reduce prices to gain quick income to ensure they do not starve. For others—who are the majority and were barely making a living before the crisis—the economic consequences of the pandemic are ruinous, as they depend on food handouts from family, friends, and sometimes from social institutions, such as the church. For women in Zimbabwe, the socio-economic crisis is a plague on its own, and its effects can be as life-threatening as the virus. Staying at home is not an option—a classic case of out of the frying pan into the fire.

Zimbabweans in general are credited for their resilience and inventiveness—having survived decades of misrule and economic hardships. For a select number of traders, the lockdown is not stopping them from their trade. Trinity Ruro has been selling footwear in the city of Bulawayo for over a decade. As she is a single parent, it was the money earned from trading that has sustained her two daughters. As an informal worker, she is back at work at her stall in the central business district of Bulawayo. She has been buying most of her goods from Botswana and sometimes from South Africa. As both countries now have strict border controls, she is relying on people sneaking into Mozambique to buy goods for her and smuggle them back into Zimbabwe for resale. Since she has no one to care for her children at home, crossing the border herself was not an option. Similar situations, however, have not prevented other women from travelling. They are crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa or entering Mozambique illegally. “Vana vanofa nenzara ka” (the children will die from hunger), Ruro says. For as long as police officers in Zimbabwe continue to earn peanuts, female traders can easily bribe their way across the borders.

The desperation to earn a living and fend for their families exposes women to numerous dangers. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to put food on the table subjected women to several challenges. A 2019 report by UK Aid pointed out that female cross-border traders face high rates of gender-based violence,  often experienced as “poly victimisation”. This means that victims are subjected to multiple forms of violence simultaneously or consecutively. These violations include coercion, extortion, discrimination in accessing trading paperwork, sexual harassment, and exploitation, as well as physical violence and verbal harassment. While there are no recorded reports of these incidents since the shutdown, it is safe to assume that the increased presence of security forces at ports of entry and exit, coupled with female traders’ determination to cross borders illegally, has the potential to exacerbate the abuse and violations perpetrated against women.

Female Traders’ Organization and Resistance

The implementation of government measures did not go without a response. Three female politicians and other young female members from the MDC Alliance, a political party whose legality is currently being contested by another rival political party, went into the streets in May, protesting the government's decision to indefinitely extend the lockdown without proper safety nets for the poor. They were allegedly abducted, sexually assaulted, and subjected to other forms of harassment and torture by suspected state agents. This July, a male vendor was shot in the ankle while fleeing police at a market in Chitungwiza, a town 30 kilometres away from Harare. The Zimbabwe Peace Project has condemned the shooting of unarmed civilians by security forces. This latest development brings to the fore the risks vendors are willing to take to sustain their livelihoods. Unfortunately for many women, the fear of violence perpetuates poverty as they decide to stay at home.

These violations, however, have not stopped civil society and other women’s organisations from speaking up. The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) has accused the government of waging a war against the livelihoods of the poor urban population. Wisdom Malaya, the secretary-general of ZCIEA, criticized the government for using outdated approaches of criminalizing informal work and stated that the opportunity to work is a human right, while traders’ associations like the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe went as far as to say that the lockdown restrictions have proven to be more harmful than the virus itself. This is quite significant, as the history of public health challenges in Zimbabwe has marginalized traders. During the cholera outbreaks in 2018 and 2008, vendors were forced off the streets. In all these occasions, it is mostly women who rely on that vending space for survival and are left to pick up the pieces.

The toughest part about this crisis is that it is far from over. In all post-COVID-19 scenarios, it remains unclear how traders will resume operations. In April, local governments destroyed stalls used by vendors in the cities, justifying these violent actions as critical sanitary measures. The Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET) has described this as the height of recklessness and responsibility by the government. Lawyers for Human Rights took the matter to the High Court, seeking an interdiction to stop the destruction which they described as unlawful. Fortunately for vendors in Chinhoyi, a town in North Central Zimbabwe, the courts demanded that local authorities repair the damaged stalls. Vendors in other cities say they will continue to fight this injustice.

Alfred Towo, a digital programming expert in development says there is a need for transformative, women-Led COVID-19 Emergency Preparedness, Response and Prevention public information campaigns. The inability to participate in income generating activities by women is the beginning of the deepening of other major problems which they already face—gender-based violence, poor access to health, and an increased burden of unpaid care work. Without women-led interventions at the national and community level, the holistic policies or safety nets crafted will not address the specific needs of women. It is quite telling that the taskforce set up to spearhead the fight against COVID-19 did not include critical ministries such as that of women’s affairs and labour and social welfare. The Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) in particular has deplored the lack of coordinated voices, highlighting the plight of women during the pandemic and more importantly the politicization of food aid, which in essence leave women vulnerable. 

The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ), a national membership-based network of women’s rights activists and women’s organizations, is pressuring the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare to ensure safety nets for women traders. According to their assessment, female traders are in an alarming situation, and capital to restart their businesses after the pandemic will be badly needed. Charity Mandishoma, who chairs the Harare city team of the women’s coalition, stated they are trying to motivate women not to lose hope. “We are encouraging women to order goods online instead of physically travelling across the border. This is also a time for many of them to diversify, and some are already in the business of making liquid soap, sanitizers, and masks to cushion them from the shocks brought by COVID-19”, Mandishoma declared. Moreover, women traders organised themselves and applied to receive a cushioning allowance from the Social Welfare Ministry. Nevertheless, according to the Women’s Coalition, none of the women in their networks were granted this fund.

In the meantime, the female traders in Zimbabwe are focusing on the next meal for their families: for them, that means selling whatever they can, evading security forces, and demanding that the government let them work.

[1] Home industries refer to income generating projects done mainly for from home. In Zimbabwe, these typically include peanut butter making, carpentry, hair dressing, dressmaking, poultry, and farming, among many other activities.

[2] Social markets refer to the form of selling done at social spaces. Many people are entrepreneurs and use church gatherings, parties, funerals, among many others, to market their goods. Often before, during and after the events, businesspeople set up stalls or sell from their cars or bags.