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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Vendors lives and livelihoods matter


On March 17, 2020 President Mnangagwa declared Coronavirus a National Disaster.  Six days later on 24 March a raft of measures were announced to assist in containing the spread of the Corona virus.  Among those measures was the closure of all land borders, only allowing freight to pass. This necessary move, however, had huge implications for the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of cross border traders.

The Border Closures

The economy and the social fabric of the region are dependent on cross-border flow of goods and people, and hence the impact of border closures for Informal Cross Border Traders (ICBT), who live subsistence existences reliant on cross-border trade for survival and already living below the poverty datum line, may be as severe as, or worse than, the impact of COVID-19. 

Most border closures have been imposed with little regional coordination within SADC and COMESA.  For instance, curfew times often vary between neighboring countries, compounding their economic impacts. With informal trade interrupted, many ICBT have had little opportunity to find alternative livelihoods.

It is incomprehensible how the ICBT have therefore found themselves outside all measures undertaken by government to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on Zimbabweans. It’s as though traders’ live don’t matter.


The government began a nationwide lockdown on March 30, which was slightly eased and extended indefinitely on May 16. The lockdown confined millions of people reliant on informal economic activities to their homes.

For households dependent on ICBT income. the lockdown therefore meant being ‘locked-out’ of their livelihoods. Essentially, the lockdown decision led to the expansion and strengthening of networks of ‘informality’ among various ICBT players who have resorted to illicit ways of continuing with their businesses. A flood of media reports have shown that goods have been smuggled through undesignated points from South Africa to Zimbabwe, and vice versa since lockdowns were imposed. 

On 4 May 2020, a further relaxing of the lockdown was announced through Statutory Instrument 99 of 2020, which set out the re-opening procedure for businesses (Government of Zimbabwe, 2020). A key but sour point for ICBT in the re-opening procedure included proving that the business is formal, as indicated by any one of the following:

  1. Having a shop license or other operating license; or
  2. Having a formal lease; or
  3. Being registered with the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA); or
  4. Being part of a recognised National Employment Council (NEC).

These measures clearly had nothing for the ICBT who are in the main not registered and who also expected a partial re-opening of land borders.

To its credit on May 4, 2020, the government, through the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, announced a ZW$18 billion, about 9% of Zimbabwe’s GDP, Covid-19 economic recovery and stimulus package.

The stimulus package outlined measures to provide liquidity support to several sectors including small and medium enterprises leaving out cross border traders.

Unfortunately, the operational mechanisms of implementation of the stimulus fund were designed to push out the majority of ICBT players as distribution of the SME support funds was through the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Corporation (SMEDCO), the Zimbabwe Women’s Microfinance Bank, popularly known as Women’s Bank and Empowerment Bank.  However, the entities mentioned have not been accessible especially for informal economy actors, mainly because of too many strings attached, chief among which is the need for collateral security.  Historically women, who make up 70% of ICBT, have had inequitable access to assets and hence they struggle to raise the collateral required. Furthermore, from the minister’s statement, it appeared that the stimulus package was only meant to be accessed by registered SMEs, and yet, many informal cross border traders are not registered.

However, to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’ the operational modalities of implementing the ‘COVID-19 Economic Recovery and Stimulus Package should have  taken into consideration the  needs of unregistered ICBT by working with ICBT associations to help unregistered traders to also access this critical funding, while at the same time assisting them regularize their registration.

The Implications for the country’s future

Post-COVID-19generally, there is the likelihood of further pressure on the informal economy as high rates of formal unemployment are significant in pushing people into the informal economy and informal cross-border trade.

One lesson we have learnt as we go towards some normalcy is that lockdown templates used by developed countries with formalised food supply systems, and with the capacity to extend social safety net interventions are bound to be fraught with challenges if they are adopted by poorer countries, like Zimbabwe, with little or no adaption to local contexts.

As the possibility for the re-opening of the borders continue to grow our behaviour as a nation begs scrutiny and the period between 29 April and 2 May is of particular interest.

On the 29th of April, the government published a report which revealed that the number of infections had gone up to 40, but revised down the number to 34, after it was found that the “6 cases from Harare previously recorded as positive on 29 April have been confirmed negative after Quality Assurance” (Ministry of Health, 2020).

The previous week, the government had again revised the statistics downwards after “a case from the second city of Bulawayo was counted twice” (The Standard, 2020). These mistakes may seem trivial, but they have huge implications for the future of ICBT activities when borders eventually reopen.

Such errors raise questions on Zimbabwe’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic especially on the testing process thereby reducing public confidence (including of many ICBT destinations) on the country’s public health system. It is, therefore, likely that when neighbouring countries begin to relax regional travel restrictions, Zimbabwean cross border traders may be subjected to strict screening procedures at the ports of entry or Zimbabwe COVID-free Certificates may not be recognized by other countries in the process negatively affecting the livelihoods of many Zimbabweans. 

Post COVID: Restoring Livelihoods and building Resilience

However post-COVID-19 recovery of ICBT activities will not only depend on the Zimbabwean government, but they will also be determined by public health measures put in place in the countries where Zimbabwean informal cross-border traders buy their wares. It is, therefore, critical that the country maintains COVID-19 testing protocols and reporting procedures that engender confidence. Otherwise, informal cross-border traders from Zimbabwe will be subjected to unnecessary screening processes at the port of entries of countries that they travel to buy their goods in the near future.

On a positive note it is heart-warming to see that Tripartite partners have decided to bat in the corner of ICBTs. On 29 July 2020 COMESA, EAC and SADC published the “TRIPARTITE GUIDELINES ON TRADE AND TRANSPORT FACILITATION FOR THE MOVEMENT OF PERSONS, GOODS AND SERVICES ACROSS THE TRIPARTITE REGION DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC” to guide governments on how borders can re-open in a COVID-compliant manner.  

Some of the recommendations of the Guidelines are:

  1. Reduction in number of passengers in a bus, mini-bus or other vehicle and enforcement of public health measures of 1 metre distance apart;
  2. Provision of WHO recommended hygiene facilities on the vehicle, at the bus terminuses, borders and other places the cross-border buses may stop;
  3. Completion of travel history questionnaires by passengers/travellers and ensuring that completed travel history forms are submitted to Port Health Officials.
Apart from the Tripartite guidelines the following can also be adopted to allow traders to resume trading: If the government is not ready to partially reopen official border crossings to informal traders on foot it should facilitate the consolidation, transportation and clearance of small-scale traders’ goods, and extend social relief to informal traders through cross-border traders associations.Inclusive financial mediation should be extended to ICBT to aid recovery and build their resilience in the face of future pandemics or other disruptive events.
It’s time for the government to demonstrate, in word and deed, that the economic and social well-being of ICBT matters.

Eric Chikukwa is the Programmes Manager of Zimbabwe Cross Border Traders Association.  He is an experienced development practitioner having spent 20 years in the sector.  He is passionate about trade justice and children’s issues.

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