The COVID-19 Pandemic is Killing Zimbabwe’s Once-thriving Cross-border Trading Networks
Policies meant to control the spread of COVID-19 have had dramatic negative impacts on Zimbabweans involved in cross-border trade, including in Mutare, a city east of Harare on the border with Mozambique.
On March 27, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a national lockdown to curtail the spread of coronavirus. The government closed all borders and shut down informal markets across the country.
In the months to follow, the economic impacts of the global pandemic and Zimbabwe’s national lockdown measures have had a devastating effect on the country’s economy. The IMF projects Zimbabwe’s economy will contract by 10.3 percent in 2020 and will not recover to 2019 levels until 2024.
According to a study by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), lockdown measures have had severely negative impacts on the informal sector, which employs 76 percent of the labor force and accounts for more than 60 percent of the country’s economic productivity. The authors cite the closures of public markets, border closures, the decentralization of agricultural auction floors, and the destruction of physical structures that house informal retail shops, known locally as tuck shops, as key causes of “tremendous losses” for informal workers and small businesses throughout the country.
But in addition, these policies have had particularly dramatic negative impacts on Zimbabweans involved in cross-border trade, including in Mutare, a city east of Harare on the border with Mozambique.
Fear and lockdown in Mutare
Fenny Madanhire, a cross-border trader in Mutare, says that prior to the global pandemic her income from trading was enough to cover school fees for her two children, buy food, and pay household bills.
“Before coronavirus, I used to buy goods in Zimbabwe for resale in neighboring Mozambique, and it was my only reliable source of livelihood,” says Madanhire.
She says she would buy an assortment of goods—bed sheets and coverings for beds and sofas—for around US$300 in Zimbabwe and could then sell for at least US$700 in Mozambique.
“When COVID-19 came, it killed my only means of survival.”
But she says, “When COVID-19 came, it killed my only means of survival.”
The first sign of the impact of the pandemic was an increased fear of contracting the virus among Madanhire’s buyers in Mozambique. “Some of our customers were no longer buying from us,” she says, “because they thought we were the ones bringing coronavirus into their country.”
And then there was the lockdown, which has pushed potentially millions of informal traders like Madanhire out of business. “The income has dried up,” she says, “I have been just sitting at home since March.”
Additionally, lockdown policies stranded some traders on the other side of the border. Madanhire says, “Many cross-border traders did not have enough income to see them through these past lean months. Right now, some traders from Zimbabwe are still stuck in Mozambique because they did not have enough money to get them back home or they just wanted to avoid all the complications associated with traveling during the pandemic.”
The new cost of doing business
When Zimbabwe finally re-opened its borders on December 1, 2020, many cross-border traders had already exhausted their available financial capital, and they have been largely unable to revive their businesses.
To make matters worse, they now face a new cost. Current policies require all cross-border travelers to present a valid COVID-19 test certificate at the border, taken within 48 hours and showing a negative result.
“It is going to be very difficult for many of us to go back into business.”
“It is going to be very difficult for many of us to go back into business,” says Fenny Madanhire. “Right now I need at least US$60 for a COVID-19 test, and in Mozambique I’m told the coronavirus test could cost around US$80. So the expenses involved are now far more than the profit I get.”
To avoid the high costs of COVID-19 test certificates, some traders are resorting to obtaining fake certificates, which cost far less.
As Itai Kariparire, the president of the Mutare Informal Traders Association, explains, “The reason for the fake certificates is the exorbitant prices for a real one. Fake certificates cost around US$10 while real ones cost around US$60, so obviously people would prefer to go for cheaper certificates despite the consequences.”
But he adds, “We encourage our informal traders to follow the procedures. Traders must know whether they are positive or not before traveling, and if they’re positive, it means they do not qualify to travel. At times it’s very expensive to try to use fake COVID-19 test certificates, and it’s good to have correct documents to avoid unnecessary expenses. So we encourage our traders not to use fake documents. It’s not about the certificate. It’s about your health and the health of those surrounding you.”
There are efforts underway to reduce the cost of legitimate tests in other parts of the country. In the city of Bulawayo, traders have partnered with a local laboratory to test traders for a cost of US$35 per test, about half of the cost facing traders in Mutare. In an interview with local journalists, Killer Zivhu, who heads the Cross-Border Traders Association of Zimbabwe, said the Bulawayo approach could benefit over 2 million cross-border traders across Zimbabwe.
The other hope is vaccination.
Sheila Zimunya, who is also a cross-border trader in Mutare and a single mother of three, says she hopes the COVID-19 vaccine comes to Zimbabwe as soon as possible.
Before the lockdown, Zimunya used to buy goods from South Africa to sell back in Zimbabwe, but the pandemic has wrecked her business.
“It will take years for us to fully recover from the effects of this pandemic.”
“Yes, the coronavirus is killing people,” she says, “but when the virus is gone we’re going to see a serious spike in poverty as a result of issues related to the pandemic. Without our source of income, our children will not get enough food and this will result in malnutrition. Our children will not be able to go to school.”
Even with the vaccine, she says, “It will take years for us to fully recover from the effects of this pandemic.”
About the author
Andrew Mambondiyani is a journalist based in Zimbabwe with an interest in the environment and climate change, human rights, and sustainable development.