It’s 9pm on a Tuesday and the streets of Harare are teeming with vendors displaying their wares on pavements.
Some have set up little “supermarkets” selling products that include clothes, bags, groceries, shoes and vegetables — goods that one would ordinarily find in retail shops.
Pedestrians negotiate their way carefully to avoid clashes with the vendors who have lined up their wares on the pavements. The new breed of vendors will not go home until their stocks are sold out. Unlike the big retailers such as OK and TM Pick n Pay who have stipulated working hours, the new “supermarkets” open and close as per sales on that day.
The night market has been thriving since council drove away vendors from the streets.
To evade council authorities, the vendors now invade the streets after 5pm when council municipal police would have knocked off for the day.
“We sell during the night because we don’t want to get into trouble with council. Council has forced us to sell during the night because they confiscated most of our goods,” said Michael, a cellphone accessories vendor.
“I go to South Africa once every month and buy goods that are worth R2 500 to R3 000 and I get almost double that amount from the sales.”
Michael said he never expected to be a vendor in his life but was forced to become one due to the harsh economic environment.
Last year over 20 000 workers were rendered jobless after the July 17 2015 Supreme Court ruling that allowed companies to terminate contracts on three months’ notice.
Independent estimates show that 90% of the population is unemployed as de-industrialisation accelerates.
For vendors such as Tatenda, “work” starts in the evening and ends at midnight or early morning during weekends and monthends.
Tatenda sells second-hand clothes.
“We are not really making much but we get enough to pay rentals and cater for basics. But we are perpetually broke and we must look for more money every time,” said Tatenda.
He said most council designated vending sites were not convenient for customers.
“The places allocated by council in Graniteside and close to the Sports Centre were not convenient for customers. There is no way customers can go to Coca-Cola [one of the designated stalls along Seke Road] when they are travelling to Kuwadzana. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
A grocery vendor who identified himself as Collen, said products sold on the streets were mostly from South Africa and some were smuggled into the country.
“I buy my stuff from South Africa and then put them into sacks. I then hand the goods to omalayitsha [people that are in the business of transporting goods across the border at a fee] and I just walk through the border without anything as the guys would take care of everything,” he said.
Collen said it was now cheaper to buy from tuck shops as the prices were almost the same.
A shoe vendor in the capital Simba Mavhunga said the prices of his shoes ranged from $10 and he started business at 6pm.
“We are trying to make ends meet because we have families to take care of. We really wish we could operate throughout the day but there is no space to accommodate all of us in the city and street vending has been outlawed. We are prepared to take whatever places they give us so that we can work during the day because evening business is not as good as day business,” said Collen.
Night vending thrives in Harare, as evidenced by small trucks that are seen selling mainly South African products.
While the informal night “supermarkets” have created employment for many, this has come at a price for registered retail chains. Apart from sagging revenues triggered by competition from the vendors, retailers are unhappy with the litter that is disposed of on their doorsteps by the night vendors.
Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers president Denford Mutashu said council must stamp its authority and stop the illegal vending that has flooded the streets.
Mutashu said council authorities were heavy handed on retailers but seemed reluctant to deal with vendors. He warned that a health hazard was looming as the source of some of the goods, especially foodstuffs, was unknown.
“We are currently carrying out research on the aggregate effect of vending on the environment. For instance, if you move around town most shops are empty due to the high rentals and most people now prefer to sell from outside where there are no rental costs,” he said.
Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme said Harare was a 24-hour city and vendors were allowed to sell throughout the night but at designated sites.
“What we are doing is, we are designing a levy for vendors who sell during the night and our enforcement will be available for 24 hours,” he said.
Chideme refuted claims by the vendors that the vending fees per day were prohibitive, saying council charged $1 per day. Vendors interviewed by this paper, however, said the vending stalls cost $10 per day.
National Vendors’ Association president Sten Zvorwadza said most local authorities in the country were counterproductive as they did not support the informal economy.
He said council was charging between $1,25 to $10 per day to vendors and 25 cents was for presumptive tax.
“Vendors have created a counter system to avoid the confiscation of goods by authorities who do not auction the goods but resell them for their own profit. Our government says one thing while practising another. An example is where officials charge more than the legal amounts as duty at border posts. This results in people smuggling goods,” he said.