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Bread and butter issues in the midst of economic hardships in Zimbabwe… how are breadwinners coping with the tough times? (Part 2)

By Paddington Masamha

The Zimbabwean standards of living keep deteriorating. Basic living expenses such as housing, clothing, food, healthcare and transport are becoming pricy and unaffordable. Meeting the expenses of the most basic goods e.g. bread has been the daily struggle of most breadwinners.

Paddington Masamha
Paddington Masamha

The country does not yet have a cost of living index (C.L.I) to act as a benchmark for price comparisons among cities, hence the heavy reliance on the Zimstat’s Consumer Price Index (C.P.I) publications.

Outstandingly, border towns like Victoria Falls and Beitbridge have long been reported to have higher costs of living. Whilst Victoria Falls is commonly known to be a US dollar town, Beitbridge is primarily dominated by the South African rand. Even if we turn a blind eye to the city to city comparisons and basically consider the national economic performance statistics, ample evidence still exists that the standards of living have weakened.

Basing on the May 2019 official inflation statistics, the Zimbabwean year on year inflation rate is reported to be 97.85%. However, having migrated from a 1:1 parity position since the 20th of February 2019 and subsequently adopting the interbank rate; the government statistics do not tally with the reality on the ground.

The initial trading rate between the US dollar and the newly created RTGS dollar was US$1.00/RTGS$2.50. Barely three months later; the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s website reported an average rate of US$1.00/RTGS$6.12 a statistic obtained on the 18th of May 2019. The disjoint between the currency (RTGS dollar) value destruction and official inflation statistics is baffling.

A qualitative or non-statistical consideration of simple proxies can provide a snapshot of the nation’s cost of living. As a commuting Zimbabwean; one passenger passed a random comment with these words, “…Mudhorobha mutengo wechingwa raisava dambudziko. Chaizosiyanisa vanhu ndechekuti munodya chingwa chinedovi here, jamhu kana mazai. Parinhasi kutotenga chingwa uri roja unenge uchakwidzirwa rendi…”

This scenario might not precisely reflect every family’s situation but is somewhat a reflection of the good old days (bread availability and affordability) and positing the current picture (bread scarcity and unaffordability).

If one doubts the observation that in Zimbabwe bread is slowly becoming a luxury, a different scenario might actually trigger some further deliberations. A tweet by one of Zimbabwe’s entrepreneurs Trevor Ncube caught my attention.

“With the cost of everything escalating. She who must be loved, feared, respected and adored has decided no more buying bread etc. She has deployed her creative juices to feed the family. I am hovering in the kitchen spreading moral support,” read Trevor Ncube’s 14th of June 2019 tweet.

I found this tweet to be paramount and summarizing the Zimbabwean bread and butter issues. The nuts and bolts of my deduction which people should notice here is Trevor Ncube is an entrepreneur.

We regularly see his newspapers The Zimbabwe Independent, The Sunday Standard and News Day. Recently his farming achievements were publicised. Over and above this, he is part and parcel of the Presidential Advisory Council (P.A.C). Was Trevor Ncube talking about himself or proffering financial advise to the masses?

Ceteris paribus, if an entrepreneur, farmer and Presidential advisor could be adopting bread substitution strategies, what more is happening within the peripheral levels of society? Can this be evidence enough that indeed the bread price is very exorbitant?

I found these two cases to be relevant point of references to discourse the urban breadwinner survival strategies. What about the jostling for the ZUPCO transport that people go through after working hours? What of the escalating costs of housing, healthcare, transport, food, etc.? How are breadwinners surviving the rough economic episode? 

The Zimbabwean breadwinner survival tactics

In an economic crisis, the primary target of any breadwinner is to ensure that his or her family has a consistent supply of food, shelter and clothing. As such, a number of urban breadwinners are adopting various survival methods. Commonly discernible tactics include; re-adjustment of budgets, streamlining of expenditures and radical changes in purchase behaviours.

Given that rentals in most towns and cities have become exorbitant; a number of households are now relocating to less expensive residential areas. For instance, families are moving from low density suburbs to medium and even to high density residential areas where accommodation costs are comparably lower.

Particularly, in some instances one can notice relocations from suburbs or locations with electricity to areas which are not yet connected to power. In extreme cases, families are moving into cabins or temporary structures outside the city centres so as to sustain their livelihoods.

Given the moribund economic status, the food budget has drastically increased. Few families can now afford a decent breakfast given the skyrocketing prices of bread, sugar, margarine and a variety of spreads. Instead, the rural practice of baking chimodho is now the new urban routine. A sizeable number of families are switching to the less expensive options of having traditional (rural) breakfasts which are usually decorated with bread substitutes such as maize cobs (chibage) sweet potatoes (mbambaira) and pumpkins (manhanga).

Homesteads with spacious backyards are engaged in market gardening projects. Though the statistic might be viewed insignificant, l do have relatives and friends who have converted their swimming pool areas into thriving urban gardens. Instead of incurring swimming pool maintenance costs, family heads took the option of reducing funds spend on purchasing vegetables.

As such; green pepper, onions, tomatoes and lettuce are now being grown from backyards. However, those who cannot afford borehole water installations are heavily constrained by the water rationing schemes of town/city council authorities hence some projects are failing to take off.

Remarkably, some backyards have been converted into poultry projects. Particularly in medium and low density suburbs, a significant number of families are involved in egg production, broiler and road runner rearing ventures. Households with different ambitions are instead converting their houses into lodges, rented office spaces, conference centres and events management platforms. Slowly; the economic crisis, is sort of stimulating a culture of converting urban houses into income generating ventures as opposed to merely being built for shelter purposes. 

Even though clothing is considered as a basic necessity of life, few families can now afford the luxury of quality clothing. Just to demonstrate this point, a number of clothing outlets have been having reduced business activity and much of the bustle is in flea markets. In a strong way, breadwinners are left with no option than to resort to second-hand clothing. No wonder second hand clothing (mazitye/mabhero) have been fast moving merchandise.

What is even worrisome is that such an industry has been trading second-hand undergarments. This scenario is particularly worse for women who are left with no option than resort to such unfathomable purchase practices. The usual arguments put forward in favour of purchasing mazitye or mabhero under garments largely hinge on the fact that the stocks are affordable, strong and of good quality.

A few years ago, urban farming was a less common practice. In a very significant manner, some urban households are now involved in gardening activities, urban agriculture and stream bank cultivation. The state media has significantly covered a number of serious concerns being raised by health officials and environmentalists regarding such urban practices. Consequently, river bank cultivation has become a national concern. 

Besides food, shelter and clothing; every urban breadwinner is distressed with the transport and healthcare budget. The exorbitant fuel costs and gruesome fuel queues have become a gross inconvenience to the commuting public.

Some breadwinners who were used to driving to work are now switching to using public transport. Those who have always been using public transport have switched to the government run ZUPCO buses. Additionally, one can also notice the robust demand for open-trucks and lorries which in most cases are charging half the normal fares of commuter omnibuses.

This opinion piece does not per se delve into the command transport model sustainability but is instead concerned with the transportation survival tactics. The long winding queues particularly for ZUPCO buses have actually forced short-distance commuters to walk to and from work instead of risking themselves with the queues. The queuing hustle and commotion (pressure) has even created a public demand for government to consider introducing male and female ZUPCO buses. This rather demonstrates how precarious the transport situation has become.

In a significant way, budgeting and saving techniques have drastically shifted from being futuristic to short-term based. A vast majority of people are operating in a survival mode. Consumer spending is now focused on basic goods and services. The demand for junk food has significantly been curtailed down in terms of frequency and quantities being purchased.

The combination of the survival mode and the goods scarcity generally trigger a wave of hoarding and bulk purchases whenever consumers get access to cheap basic commodities. For instance, those privileged to access fuel without quantity limitations have largely purchased it in bulk.

Corporates who have for long neglected their fuel storage facilities are slowly refurbishing and utilising such storing facilities. Yet at the same time, the fuel crisis has created a massive potential for fuel dealers to mushroom and profit from the intermittent supplies.

Cash is always king even in economic crisis ridden economies. The demand for cash enable people to have a variety of options. For instance; instead of holding on to RTGS dollars, people temporarily demand bond notes (cash) so as to convert to a currency which maintains value (e.g. rand, pula or USD). This then explains the bank queues and the massive demand for physical cash.  

The majority of Zimbabweans are directly or indirectly involved in some money changing scheme. A significant number of social media groups (e.g. whatsapp, facebook and twitter) do have daily if not hourly updates of parallel market exchange rates. Those formally employed receive their incomes and convert the proceeds into stable currencies, whilst some demand cash to facilitate various currency exchanges and trades.

Small-scale and cross-border traders who largely restock (import) their merchandise from South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Tanzania, China, Dubai etc. are daily involved in parallel market activities in search for foreign currencies.

Used car imports (popularly known as ex-Japs) further amplify the demand for foreign currency. Given the enormous demand for foreign currency without a concomitant official supply of foreign currencies and cross-rates; cash barons have been flourishing. Even some formally employed have taken the trade as a side-job so as to boost their meagre incomes.

Whenever such unfortunate scenarios are prevalent within the economy; it is almost as if the law of the jungle exists. Only the fittest survive the jungle. Usually, it is the elite, those wielding power and the politically well-connected (relatives, friends and cronies) who keep riding on the unfortunate economic situation. No wonder why corruption, cronyism and nepotism have reached endemic levels in our motherland.

Whenever economic inhabitants visualize economic doom and gloom, usually political disbelief in their current leadership creeps in. Those who give up on life are even forced into suicides. Whilst others instead resort to rioting and protesting for a change. A significant number of youths resort to drug trades, prostitution, robbery, burglary, theft and hooliganism.

Public areas such as bus terminus are usually menaced with violent behaviour of touts as they scramble for the few travelers.  Another section of society instead join the migrating groups (both legal and illegal) in search for greener pastures, whilst some choose to further their education in overseas countries (since in most cases international scholarship monthly cash stipends usually outweigh the working employee’s salary). The current pressure for passports, study and work permits; might be a strong signal of labour migration in search for lucrative pastures.

Those who remain in the country many a times choose to establish survival tactics that help them navigate through the economic hardships. For instance, a lot of bartering of goods is also a notable development. Faced with lopsided budgets, some breadwinners resort to paying debts or financing living expenses through bartering their personal belongings and assets.

Aligned to the reduced degree of budgeting and savings is the crumbling down of productive borrowings. For instance, few people now have access to credit facilities (particularly mortgages and hire purchase facilities) because credit granting institutions are hedging against the inflation and currency risks. Even the traditional financing models such as mukando/stokvel, do crumble down because short-term financial horizons would be the dominating motive for demanding or holding on to money. As such, construction projects of most families are shelved.

Conclusion

Today, breadwinners are confronted with various economic vexations. The economic plagues prevent breadwinners from sustaining current family lifestyles, taking care of parents and or extended family members, accumulating retirement incomes and leaving a legacy for their children and grandkids.

At some point during my undergraduate studies Alick Macheso’s Makandidana song was a hit. Back then and even today, the message contained in the song resonates so well with the present economic realities.

To the rural parents; once again your children are in a survival mode (zvakadzvanya). To the family breadwinners; let us embrace lawful survival tactics and whenever possible do not neglect your rural relatives, families and friends.

May the relevant government authorities be challenged by this opinion paper and restore economic normalcy.

Paddington Masamha is an independent Financial and Economic Analyst. He can be reached on email [email protected] and Twitter @PMasamha