Monalisa Makosa (45) oversees preparation of food and customers’ service in the crammed two-roomed “restaurant” at a crowded business premise in downtown Harare with a sharp eye — eagle-like.
It seems the heat from the stoves — which run non-stop for hours on end — is not a bother, neither is the fact that the dining room in which the patrons are served is too crowded, almost to the point of suffocating.
All that matters is the number of dollars falling into Monalisa’s purse, little of which will return into the business to make adjustments to the premises obviously crying out for a facelift, which might make having lunch there an enjoyable experience.
But such an investment is far from Makosa’s thoughts.
“My customers don’t bother with those little things,” she remarks casually. “All they need is a quick tea or lunch before dashing back to work.”
A widowed mother of four, Makosa belongs to a new breed of women using their entrepreneurial flair to earn a living from a simple, everyday skill: preparing basic meals such as sadza, rice, beef and vegetables.
Just along Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, between Rotten Row and Fourth Street, there are as many as 10 such restaurants.
The only stain on the businesses, however, is that like Makosa’s, most of them are not registered with the city council’s health department as required by the city bylaws.
“Their (council’s) demands are way too high for some of us to meet,” Makosa says. “So we just do what we have to do to earn a living. As long as the market is there, we can’t stop cooking.”
For just $1, one can have a filling meal, so the business draws customers like moths to light. Many throng the place everyday for affordable meals, and pay scant regard to the unattractive — and often unhygienic — environment, itself a cause for concern to the city authorities.
Although Harare’s spokesperson, Leslie Gwindi, said he would not know if all those restaurants were licenced to operate, council undertook “rigorous tests” to ensure that they met the requisite conditions to operate.
“As council, we will close down all unlicensed restaurant operating at places that were not suitable for that kind of business,” he said.
Another entrepreneur, who identified herself as Charity, says there are easy ways of getting round such problems, like striking “food–for–freedom deals” with some municipal police officers.
“We have an arrangement where they come and have meals for free everyday and they’ll pay a blind eye to the fact that you’re not licenced to operate this kind of business,” she says.
Curiously, most — if not all — the patrons at the over 15 backyard eating places visited by NewsDay were male.
Charity explains the gender dynamics: “Women generally seem to prefer a more spacious, cleaner and open place to eat, but then we can’t provide that here because we just don’t have the space.”
She says this is a very profitable venture because people will always want to eat.
Gwindi however said before restaurants could ne given the green light to operate, they should be located at the right place and operate at designated premises, with proper ablution facilities.
The restaurants, however, fall far short of these provisions, and Gwindi said council will be unrelenting in its efforts to close down such places.
Following the introduction of the multi-currency system restaurants seem to have become the business of choice. Many of the places however were unhygienic, and the cooks did not even wear the recommended regalia, including chef’s caps and aprons.
In the premises ventilation, drainage systems and lighting were sub-standard.
Many of the customers, however, barely pay attention to such details, and continue to swarm these places mainly for lunch.
A college student in Harare, who identified himself as Lionel, said all he needed was a cheap meal which he could afford, and for him, a dollar was a fair bargain.
“I barely consider the premises where the food is cooked,” he said. “All I need is a cheap meal.”
Four years ago, the city council launched a blitz on such businesses premises and closed several lodges, bars and restaurants that had been operating illegally.
The then Harare mayor, Sekesayi Makwavarara, expressed concern over the manner in which council employees in the licensing department were issuing licences to such businesses.
“We are not going to tolerate that (businesses operating under such conditions). We urge similar businesses to close on their own before we catch up with them,” Makwavarara was quoted saying.
According to Gwindi, businesses operating under such unhygienic conditions as seen at most of the restaurants in the city were responsible for waste management problems in Harare as their patrons and customers threw litter and relieved themselves in sanitary lanes.
Those from the top strata of society however shun such lowly places, and prefer the more upmarket restaurants in keeping with their social status.
But for the likes of Makosa, it is business as usual, and the cat-and-mouse game with the municipal authorities continues as they serve their expanding client base, made up mainly of low income earners.