Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy

I had another catch-up with colleagues in Zimbabwe recently, reflecting on the COVID-19 situation and its consequences across our sites in Masvingo, Gutu, Mwenezi, Matobo and Mvurwi. This is now the fifth update since March/April (see summary so far here).

The pandemic has not proceeded as some feared in Zimbabwe, and recorded case numbers (at 8471 on November 6) and deaths (at 250) are still low. There is much speculation about how and why the pandemic took a different course across Africa, and in future blogs we will explore some of these hypotheses in relation to the Zimbabwe setting.

As colleagues mentioned during the call, “We really don’t know any cases where we live, even in the hospitals and clinics. We don’t see people sick with the virus so far”. What is feared is the return of migrants from South Africa plus visitors from Europe and the UK during the holiday season. “We hope the government will be strict. There are requirements for test certificates, but you know they can always be cheated.” The importance of flows of people from outside the country is certainly central to the COVID-19 story in Zimbabwe, as we have discussed in previous blogs.

Zimbabwe is still under partial lockdown, with road blocks and movement restrictions in place, even though curfews and business opening hour regulations have been relaxed. The police are very present, and particularly engaged in checking permits especially of cross-border traffic in towns like Masvingo. With the weather being very hot last week before the rains, it was commented that “many had given up wearing masks, and relied on the heat as a ‘natural sanitiser’”. As one colleague observed, “It’s difficult to continue protecting ourselves when we don’t see the impacts of the virus”.

Diversified livelihoods

This blog focuses on the situation in the period since the last update on September 27, with a particular focus on the livelihood impacts of lockdown on women and young people. The standard approaches to raising funds to support families by women and young people have been insufficient, as COVID-19 restrictions have hit hard. Diversification beyond agriculture is key, offering new livelihood options. Below are some examples of occupations taken up during the pandemic in our sites, especially by women and young people, to support their livelihoods.

Fruit and veg. Diversification of livelihoods has been vital, since traditional occupations for women and young people have been constrained during lockdown. For example, while vending remains important for women, cross-border trade that used to be a mainstay in the border areas such as Mwenezi and Matobo is no longer feasible. Some have diversified, so for example dry season sales of wild fruits has expanded along the roads near Gutu, as women and children harvest matamba and mushuku, both selling for a US dollar for a handful of fruit.

Similarly, gardening continues as a vital source of self-provisioning with major nutritional benefits. As we have reported before, nearly everyone is a gardener now, whether in town or the rural areas, although women and youth are the dominant gardeners it seems. However, the expansion of gardening, combined with restrictions on market (again discussed in earlier blogs) has resulted in local gluts, particularly during the recent dry season – which is the traditional focus for gardening activities. The result is that women in particular have had to innovate, and develop new ways of processing and storing vegetables and fruits to sustain income over a longer period across seasons, and through variable market conditions.

Gold and amethyst. Small-scale mining is an essential activity for young people, mostly men. However, over the past few months a surprising development has been the movement of women into mining activities. Our colleague in Matobo reckons perhaps a fifth of miners are now women. While the mining claim owners of course are by-and-large well-connected older men, who manage the claim through a system of sharing with a group of contractors, women and young people join syndicates and provide labour. Most mining is of gold and in these cases half is shared with the owner, while the rest is divided amongst the group who did the mining.

Gold mining has expanded massively in all sites, including a recent huge expansion around Masvingo town. One young man, RB, relayed his story:

“I had been a driver for three years, but I lost my job because of lockdown. The transport businesses just collapsed. My wife and kids went back to the rural home as I could not support them in town. But in the last six months I have started mining outside town. I work with a group of five and we share the ore, milling it locally. If you work hard you can earn US$1400 per month, even when giving half to the claim owner. I have bought a car and I have plans to buy a stand. My family came back two weeks ago and are with me now. Life is now good!”

In Chikombedzi area in Mwenezi there has been a massive rush to mining sites where purple amethyst deposits have been found. Around a thousand people are living there, with markets developing for food, as well as services including transport, machinery hire and sex work. With amethyst quartz rocks being sold for about R1800 per kg, it has become a lucrative business.

Brick-making and building. With the flood of migrants coming back from South Africa and neighbouring countries, as well as from urban areas across Zimbabwe, during the pandemic due to the loss of jobs, the demand for building in the rural areas has sky-rocketed. These dispersed COVID-19 ‘refugees’ have returned home, but need somewhere to live. This, in turn, has generated a big demand for local ‘farm bricks’, which are cured and sold on to builders. In Wondedzo, a thousand bricks were being sold for around US$25. Brick-making has become an important source of income during this past dry season for both women and youth, who take on different roles between digging, moulding and firing in kilns, with each kiln producing 5-10,000 bricks each time.

Chickens and pigs. Poultry is another area where women and youth have invested considerably in recent months as there has been a growth in demand for local supplies of poultry. In part this is because of the closure of butcheries and the difficulty of getting to town, and in part because local sources of meat have been hit hard by the mass mortalities of cattle due to ‘January disease’ during the past wet season. The abbatoirs are also closed too; indeed one near Masvingo has been converted into a gold milling plant reflecting the switch in livelihood activities.

Mrs C. based in Masvingo explains how she moved from having under 30 chickens to over 300:

“I am a teacher, but my salary doesn’t pay. My husband who used to work on cross-border buses also lost his job due to COVID. I decided to expand my flock, buying up ‘road-runner’ indigenous chickens. I now have three breeds, two from a supplier of day-old chicks in Bulawayo and one from Mr M who supplies from a nearby growth point. I buy these for between 55 and 80 US cents per chick, along with some feed. These breeds though don’t need expensive feed and medicine, so I don’t have to go to town. I now make US$200 per month and am planning to expand further. I have already started a small piggery project to complement.  I am thinking of quitting teaching, as this really pays”.  

Bread and buns. With access to town restricted and movement difficult, baking has become another big cottage industry in rural areas and urban locations, and an important income source for women. In Chatsworth in Gutu for example a government training course encouraged women to take this up, and baking at home of bread and buns has expanded massively since. Across our sites you can buy bread, buns and cakes from people’s homes, as local people have taken on the supply.

Piece-work employment. While conventional jobs are scarce, there have been other sources of employment emerging, even in the dry season when agricultural piece-work options are generally limited. In particular, hiring of labour for digging holes for the Pfumvudza programme (a major government-led initiative with donor support on conservation agriculture – watch out for blogs on the experience of this in the coming weeks) has become important in all our sites.

Young people in particular have been able to benefit, with digging pits in one plot (39m x 16m) being charged at between US$5 at US$20 depending on the soil type and location, with payment in cash or kind (mostly soap and sugar). It is young men in particular who are benefiting from this, as older people often prefer to pay for the labour in order to get the free seeds and fertilisers.

Money matters

Saving and circulating money is a big challenges, as access to towns has reduced. There has therefore been a big growth in various forms of ‘savings clubs’ in the past months across all sites, which particularly involve women. For example in Wondedzo area near Masvingo, 20 women pooled cash and members draw funds to finance projects, paying interest on the amount of around 20%. In Masvingo town meanwhile there are lots of such clubs, some church-based, some just amongst a group of individuals. One group involves six female civil servants, mostly teachers, who save 150 Rand every two weeks, and one member takes out the full amount each fortnight to fund activities.

Money for new activities is crucial; without employment and with banks closed or difficult to get to from rural areas or townships, then new forms of managing money becomes important. New regulations that restrict the amount of phone lines for mobile ecocash money transactions and the electronic transfer tax also dissuades people from using electronic means. Instead very localised systems for saving and circulating cash – all in foreign exchange, either Rands or US dollars depending on the location – is the alternative.

And it’s women in particular who are the key players in this new savings and credit economy, as they in particular need funds for new projects to enhance their livelihoods.

Lockdown challenges

As we have discussed in earlier blogs, lockdown has not all been plain-sailing. Not everyone is able to innovate, earn money and do better than before, as with RM the young miner and Mrs C the poultry producer introduced above.

Our colleagues report in particular the many tensions that have arisen within families. With relatives coming back from South Africa and elsewhere they have to be accommodated and supported. Extra mouths to feed and people to house in a time a crisis. While the COVID-19 migrant-return situation has not been widely reported, as people have dispersed to multiple homes across many locations, the absorption of many thousands of people into a poor, local, mostly rural economy has had a big impact economically and socially.

Those returning, used to working in big cities south of the Limpopo may not be happy with a new rural existence, something they escaped before. Among (mostly male) youth, both returnees and local residents, our colleagues reported a rise in drug taking, drinking and general depression. This has led to arguments and sometimes violence. A rise in pregnancies among young women and teenage marriages have also been reported. Boredom and lack of opportunity, along with an inability to travel, even move to the local town, play into a negative, potentially destructive, social dynamic affecting many young people.

Not all migrants have been able to return, however, and some have been trapped in South Africa, unable to move. In our study areas near the borders – Matobo and Mwenezi – in the past men would move back and forth between often temporary jobs in farms and mines in South Africa, or to Mozambique or Botswana. Today this flexible movement is no longer feasible. Men are locked in South Africa in particular, while women are locked down at home. Adulterous affairs among both men and women have expanded, resulting in arguments, occasional violence and many reported divorces.  

Unlocking opportunities during lockdown

Despite the very clear lockdown challenges, the pattern seen across sites is one of innovative survival, and sometimes more. As one informant from Masvingo explained: “Lockdown has unlocked the entrepreneurial spirit! We can now earn good cash. I am not looking back!”

The transformations precipitated by COVID-19 lockdown have therefore not all been negative. As people have innovated to survive, new options have emerged, focused on new markets – whether building for returning migrants, supplying chickens or vegetables in the rural areas. With a shift to local production, short market/value chains and extending the range of activities – from mining to baking – the rural economy, and its connections to urban areas, has shifted significantly over the past seven months.

There is therefore a new COVID economy – and with this new social relations, with both opportunities and challenges. We will keep an eye on these developments over the coming months as the dry season moves (hopefully) into a rainy agricultural season, exploring whether these changes are temporary – a response to a crisis – or more long-term, shifting the terms, roles and incentives in economic activities over time, with new opportunities, especially for women and young people.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

Thanks to the team in Matobo, Mwenezi, Mvurwi, Gutu, Wondedzo and Masvingo for contributing insights to the blog.

1 Comment

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One response to “Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy

  1. Francis Rwodzi

    Fantastic work Ian!

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