Planning responses to Covid-19 in Zimbabwean cities

Percy Toriro

In Zimbabwe, some towns are growing so fast that populations are doubling every 20 years. The fastest growing town is Ruwa at almost 10% per year. While urbanization has meant better standards of living in other continents, in Africa, poor people have moved to towns looking for opportunities that they don’t find. They end up unemployed or underemployed and living in informal settlements.  Most urban areas now have many sections without water and sewerage connections. Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, has moved from above 90% water connectivity in the 1990s to less than 40% currently. Many new areas in Harare do not have water and sanitation facilities. There are similar settlements around Chitungwiza without reticulated water supplies and proper sanitation facilities. There are also challenges of overcrowding in areas such as Mbare Hostels where the sanitation facilities are either broken down or inadequate.

All of these factors have implications for the spread and management of the coronavirus. Public health professionals indicate that one of the simplest measures to curb the spread of the virus is the washing of hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Many people in urban Zimbabwe do not have water to wash their hands and are not able to take advantage of the first line of defence against the virus.

The Zimbabwean economy has largely turned informal. Most people work for themselves as vendors or in other informal services including road-side vehicle repairs, car washing and so on. These activities are undertaken in makeshift structures that do not have municipal services such as running water and regular waste management. Even those in municipal facilities such as Mbare Siyaso home industries and Mupedzanhamo Market end up overcrowded due to subletting and other informal arrangements. Furthermore, most of these people live from hand to mouth with no savings.

Lockdowns are predictably difficult to manage in our context because most people are self-employed in the informal sector and unable to save. For this and other reasons including droughts, Zimbabwe was already food insecure before Covid-19. I argue that we must take measures to include all food sources within the essential services bracket if we are to cater for all social classes.

With the government-imposed lockdown, only essential services remain operational. The essential services refers to utility suppliers of electricity, water, sanitation services, medical services, mass public transport and all those in the food supply chain. I will limit myself to discussing the food value chain since I would like to contribute to bringing clarity on who should be covered by ‘essential services’ among the suppliers of food.

The food system is the long value chain that starts with food production to transportation and processing and includes retailing. Due to our modernist idea of what is a good city, when we imagine food outlets, we mostly think of supermarkets, butcheries, and maybe restaurants. We may even forget the large Mbare Market. We miss out on other major players in that food supply system especially the informal sector and the small-scale suppliers. However, 90% of the food supply system in Sakubva, Epworth and other low-income areas comes from the informal and small-scale sector. It is easy to see this when you visit residents of Mbare, Sakubva or Epworth – all low-income suburbs in different urban areas.

If I visit my relatives in any of those areas all I need to do to understand this is to conduct a bit of research. I only need to ask them where they obtained their food supplies. For example, I found this from one family in Epworth: Their rice and cooking oil was bought from a cross-border trader who was selling it from a table outside their house. The vegetables (tomatoes, onions, green vegetables) were bought from a local vendor who had obtained them from Mbare Wholesale Market supplied by small-scale farmers from Murewa and Mutoko. Their avocados were bought from the local market, again via the Mbare value chain, having come all the way from Honde Valley. The meat was an off-layer chicken bought from a truck supplied by chicken producers in the peri-urban area. Upon inquiry, I established that their maize meal had been processed at the local grinding mill from maize bought at the local market. They also had a pocket of potatoes bought from a truck by the roadside.

A simple examination of that family’s food supply is that it did not come from the supermarket (which at first was the only permitted food outlet in the current lockdown). It all came from informal and small-scale food suppliers. These suppliers are not licensed and do not have a loud voice like the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) or the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers who can speak to national leaders and lobby them in situations like a lockdown. They are the precarious informal livelihoods that I referred to as sustaining the majority of citizens. Yet they are supplying food to 90% of people in the most densely populated areas of Mbare, Sakubva, Makokoba, and Epworth.

Crowded places such as Mupedzanhamo Market are potential high-risk areas where the virus will infect thousands in a short time. Decongestion measures should be taken. The city authorities should work with traders to alternate the days each neighbour in the market comes to work to increase distance between traders. The same method can be applied in the home industries. While this would hurt the small-scale traders’ businesses, it is better than being forced to shut down completely.

For settlements, councils may have to bring in water bowsers for those who have no access. Clean water and the need to wash hands are central to dealing with the pandemic. Without water the battle is lost before it starts.  Other challenges require larger resources and their solutions are longer-term in nature. But this pandemic provides a reminder that some situations are unsustainable: Mbare Hostels have been considered a health hazard for a long time. They must be de-congested and upgraded. Many plans have been made but not implemented and most of these hostels remain unsuitable for human habitation. And crises like this expose their unsuitability more glaringly.

Many new settlements such as Caledonia, Harare South and parts of Epworth lack infrastructure to a potentially disastrous extent. Councils will not manage the issues requiring attention on their own and must work together with central government to develop a strong response. In times like these we need unity of purpose and to focus on the crisis.

I have spoken to many informal traders. They are aware of health concerns and want to operate in an acceptable manner so that they can enjoy security of tenure and protect their businesses, which are their livelihoods. But we all treat them like kids and out of desperation they are pushed to break the laws because ‘they will never understand us’. It becomes a lose-lose situation.

The fact that we have collectively failed to provide decent trading spaces for these small businesses is partly the collective failure of local government in Zimbabwe. These people already live in spaces where the much-touted social distancing is a luxury that is non-existent. And I indicated that this pandemic provides a reminder that some situations that they have lived in are unsustainable. Maybe this is an opportunity for us to collectively re-imagine our cities, especially where the poor live.

Informal and small-scale markets must be improved to give people decent livelihoods. We cannot ignore sources of food and livelihoods for the majority of our people. Food sources are not just large supermarkets, they include potatoes sold in a pick-up truck by the roadside, tomatoes being sold from a table outside someone’s house, and chickens kept by a neighbour.

It is a very welcome move that the authorities considered the public outcry and fresh produce markets including the huge Mbare Market in Harare and the Sakubva Market in Mutare reopened as essential services in the lockdown.

Predictably the reopening of these markets has been negatively received by sections of society that find the survival strategies of the urban poor unacceptable. They argue that social distancing is not being observed at these markets thereby risking the mass spreading of the coronavirus. Their fears are genuine. Videos of traders and buyers interacting at Mbare Market taken on the day it was reopened make disturbing viewing. There were no measures being taken to curb the possible spread of the virus. But the problem is not the existence of these markets. 

Using the example of Harare, I argue that the problem with informal and small-scale livelihoods is the failure by officials to be involved and be innovative. The officials expect the informal sector to operate efficiently but they are not investing in making that happen. People need not be pushed to choose between dying of the virus and dying of hunger. Although I use the example of Harare, the ideas can be replicated in Bulawayo, Gweru, Mutare or the smaller towns.

Mbare Market is the country’s largest food market and attracts traders and buyers from all over the country. Think of the vegetable suppliers from Murehwa and Mutoko, the banana suppliers from Burma Valley, and the avocado suppliers from Honde Valley and Chipinge. They come to the market daily and sell their produce. Firstly, we need innovations to the current supply chains. There is everything wrong in a system that gives a farmer in Mutoko the burden of individually bringing their produce to Mbare Market and proceeding to wait to sell. We can borrow from large chain supermarkets supply model which has a network of farmers from who they collect produce for distribution to their different outlets. I have always found the sight of a farmer balancing precariously on top of their vegetables in a lorry dehumanizing our farmers. They toil on the soil only to suffer again trying to access markets. Government through its Ministry of SMEs or NGOs working to support agriculture value chains should organize these farmers and help them access transport and market linkages that not only benefit from economies of scale but improve their operational efficiencies. This will reduce the need for farmers to personally go to markets. Once the numbers of farmers coming to the market is reduced that way, the issue of congestion at markets is dealt with, at least from the producers’ side.

Having dealt with congestion by removing farmers from the markets, I will now deal with the congestion caused by the sheer size of Mbare Market and how to reduce the number of people visiting Mbare. This can be achieved by decentralizing the role of Mbare Musika. As a short-term measure, lorries with fresh produce can be redirected to regional markets that can be set up in Hatcliffe in the north, Mabvuku in the east, Epworth in the south east, Chitungwiza in the south, Highfield in the south-west, and Kuwadzana in the West. There can also be similar distribution centres at major shopping centres such as High Glen and Westgate. Some detailed site planning will be required to demarcate spaces and encourage specialization so that different products can be bought from different areas within the market, all clearly signposted. Support facilities such as parking and ablutions must also be quickly planned. Wholesale and retail spaces can also be separately designed. Beyond Covid-19, these markets can be further developed to avoid leakages and storage losses by developing storage warehouses complete with refrigeration facilities.

Then there are the small-scale outlets that get produce from these regional wholesale facilities to the local areas. These will be situated at the lowest level of the value chain and, as a result of the separation proposed above, it becomes much easier to practise social distancing. But to achieve the desired impact, authorities must play their part. At every stage of the value chain, there must be municipal officials planning and developing relevant simple but decent infrastructure, organizing people, monitoring these plans, evaluating and ready to adjust any weak links in the value chain. Like  large-chain supermarkets, which are constantly monitored for adherence to numerous standards, the informal sector can also live by a certain agreed realistic standard if they are supported and monitored.

I have already made the point that Informal and small-scale markets must be improved because many people rely on them and they are livelihoods supporting about 60% of urban residents. In the era of Covid-19 more official support to these sectors will be expected. Whereas in the past health concerns were an important issue, with this virus they have become a life and death issue. We must jointly ensure the integrity of all food supplies. Evidence from the Indian informal sector showed us that social distancing is possible in the informal sector. Guidelines developed by the City of Cape Town working with the African Centre for Cities also prove that situations like these call for a multi-stakeholder approach.