Evelyn Mbariro operated a small sewing business in Mbare, Harare’s oldest township, making various types of clothes for the city’s low and middle-income earners.
The backyard factory, set up by converting three of the rooms in her five-roomed house into workshops and a showroom, produced everything: from ladies’ formal costumes and school uniforms to “designer” clothes, some of which found their way to downtown retail shops in the city.
But that was then.
Around March last year, the business went the way of Cone Textiles and David Whitehead, folding operations and offloading employees; her 19-year old child, an auntie’s son and herself. Mbariro said the clothing-manufacturing project was no longer viable.
Firstly, the influx of second-hand clothes from China and other south-east Asian countries smuggled in containers has virtually wrested the market that had traditionally secured a livelihood for her and other downstream players.
Secondly, the type of clothes she makes is now “out of taste”, imported low-cost second-hand clothes have a trendy touch in terms of design and style.
“It’s difficult for us to compete with the second-hand clothes because they are cheap,” Mbariro said.
“The local garments are very expensive. It’s not difficult to produce the same clothes, but it’s pointless because it costs twice or thrice more to produce the same apparel sold by local boutiques.”
Mbariro said the import pressure started five years ago and eventually squeezed local traders out of the market in March last year, a month after the multiple currency regime came into force.
Established in 2000, the owner-managed firm is one of the few businesses that had survived Operation Murambatsvina, a government-led clean-up campaign that razed buildings, cottages and industries not approved by the local council in 2005.
Although market proved more destructive than the legal crackdown, there is something that they couldn’t destroy, the spirit of entrepreneurship.
But recovering from the setback and diversifying away from clothing was not a stroll in the park from that low capital base, tight margins and depressed demand, the early offshoots of dollarisation. It took her five months to learn a new game and to regain satisfaction and confidence that the business was taking her somewhere.
She has now opened a petty-commodity stall at Mupedzanhamo, Harare’s largest open-space market for second-hand household wares and clothing.
The “table” as it is called, mostly deals in beauty accessories such as face creams. It also sells old newspapers and wallets. Her neighbour and competitor, Chipo Mahukwe, also trades in the same commodities.
In this market, newspapers have many lives after print. Old newspapers are used as packaging material for a number of items.
An old copy of NewsDay, which has a face value of $0,50, sells at $0,01 or R0,5.
Mahukwe says her daily turnover from the sales averages $3-$5.
“I have been in this business since 2002, but have realised that there is no money in the market and business is difficult,” said Mahukwe.