Bulawayo informal traders reel from Covid-19 lockdowns

By Pamenus Tuso

The majority of Bulawayo’s informal traders are struggling to resuscitate their businesses after being frozen out for nearly a year by lockdowns to slow down the spread of Covid-19, it has emerged. 

Informal traders across the country were the hardest hit by the lockdowns that were first imposed in March last year as the authorities restricted the movement of people and shut down businesses for prolonged periods. 

Even as the economy partially re-opened mid last year, before another tough lockdown in January this year to minimise the impact of the second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak, informal business remained largely closed because of the stringent regulations.

Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association (BVTA), which has a membership of about 5,000 informal traders, said 90 percent of its members were adversely affected by the lockdown. 

The organisation, which promotes the expansion and economic opportunities for Bulawayo urban vendors and informal traders, said those less affected by the business shutdowns operated from home even before the lockdowns.

“I would say almost 90 to 100 percent of our members were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, save for a few who were selling from home,” said BVA director Michael Ndiweni.

“Some traders closed shop while others are unable to restock because they spent the little that they had saved.”

Vendors in the city also lost their trading spaces because the size of some markets had to be reduced as part of measures to decongest the areas in line with the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 prevention measures, he said.

 “The trading space for each vendor was reduced,” Ndiweni said.

“So it means that 30 percent of them moved elsewhere or failed to get trading space.”

Some informal traders also lost their merchandise after it went stale while being stored at warehouses for safe keeping during lockdowns.

“Recently we were talking to some Entumbane traders, who are dealing in dried foods,” Ndiweni said.

“They were lamenting the fact that some of their produce went bad because they were locked down with large stocks of other goods.

“So they were unable to recover the money they used to order these goods.

“It was an outright loss and most of the vendors are even struggling to increase their stocks.” 

He said BVA had started a training programme for vendors to help them cope with the effects of the economic shutdowns during Covid-19. 

Ndiweni said the training will help the vendors to set up internal lending and saving schemes as a way of trying to build capital to resuscitate their businesses. 

The vendors are also receiving training in financial literacy, marketing skills and information communication technologies while a resolving fund has been set up to benefit BVA members.

“We hope this fund will go a long way in assisting the informal traders to restock,” Ndiweni said.

“We are appealing to members with bankable and better ideas to apply for the facility. 

“We are also training members not to rely too much on the informal trading, but also to start to produce goods locally.”

As part of this initiative, Bulawayo vendors are being trained on how to produce   food products and detergents as well as on garment making.

“We believe such initiatives will   increase the vendors’ ability to at least cope with the shocks of their losses,” he added.

““We are encouraging the vendors to work as groups.” 

The government last year set aside $600 million to cushion informal traders from the effects of the lockdowns, but different associations representing small-scale businesses say they did not benefit from the fund. 

Others argued that the disbursements were too little to sustain them in an economic environment characterised by a high inflation rate.

The BVA has been distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to its members to help control the spread of the coronavirus and is helping the local authority enforce social distancing at city markets. 

 “We distributed almost 2,000 masks, hand washing   water dispensers and thermometers,” Ndiweni said.

“We have also supported the Bulawayo City Council with road line paint for remarking of market spaces so that the vendors comply with social distancing. 

“We did this in partnership with other stakeholders though the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF) Sizimele consortium.

Through the programme, BVA has also been carrying out Covid-19 awareness campaigns on radio and online platforms as well as the mainstream media. 

The association has also launched a digital application to help traders to connect with their customers.

“It is a space for interaction between buyers and sellers, particularly those that are involved in agricultural products or food products,” he said.

“The idea of this facility is to link farm producers who are dotted around the country and buyers, who are retailers of the products. 

“It is a platform in our view, which is revolutionising informal trading in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Ndiweni, however, bemoaned the prohibitive cost of data, which he said prohibited informal traders from embracing new technologies for their businesses.

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