Tatenda Muvirimi (28) from Kuwadzana, a suburb of the Zimbabwean capital Harare, drives a fancy car and owns a five-room house thanks to his business of selling second-hand clothing smuggled from neighbouring Mozambique. Many of Muvirimi’s peers, who graduated from Zimbabwe’s tertiary institutions in the past five years, have failed at getting a white-collar job. Many have therefore crossed the border into South Africa to seek employment.
But for Muvirimi, looking for a white-collar job was never his priority. In fact, he didn’t even attend tertiary education. Soon after finishing his General Certificate of Education, O-levels in 2002, he opted for self-employment. “I was never bright at school and therefore never expected to excel. My parents used to mock me for being adamant in class. But as the economy is crumbling it seems like education is no longer the key to success,” brags Muvirimi, who earns more than those working in public service. He travels to Mozambique by airplane every two weeks “to buy at least twenty bales of second-hand clothes, which I leave there to be transported and smuggled by others. I make at least 500 US dollars a week and in a good week, it’s more than that,” he says.
Smuggling as business model
Due to the country’s economic collapse over the past decade, Zimbabwe has experienced the demise of its manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, the standard of living has dropped enough to cause a boom in second-hand clothing. At least 450 people are losing their jobs every week, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). With families to feed and rent to pay, many have entered the emerging second-hand clothing business.
Zivanayi Mabhugu, a 30-year-old father of two, holds a master’s degree, but was laid off from his work last December. Without proper capital, he decided to sell second-hand clothes since it requires little starting capital. “I acquired a loan from a loan shark and started with buying second-hand clothes from suppliers in Mbare [a Harare suburb],” says Mabhugu. “It took me at least three months before I enjoyed any profits. And the only way one can earn more is to remain focused and be willing to take chances that come along with any business.”
Now earning over 900 US dollars a month, Mabhugu can afford to rent a nice house and pay his children’s school fees. “As a result of the smuggled second-hand clothes, which have taken the place of locally manufactured clothes, jobs have been created,” says Mabhugu. “At the flea markets there are touts who lure customers, others who pack and wheel the bales to storages, and those that simply sell carrier bags. Yet all of them are making a living from the proceeds of the second-hand bales.”
The Ministry of Industry and Commerce says it aims to bring smugglers to book for evading revenue collection. But it also admits in failing to meet the demand for textile production. “Zimbabwe has 16 textile ginneries, but not one is able to produce textiles due to a lack of investment and company closures. We are worried about Zimbabwe’s failure to manufacture and export textile,” the Deputy Minister of Industry and Commerce, Alice Mabuwa, recently told legislators in parliament.
The Zimbabwe government crafted the economic blueprint ‘Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation’ in 2013, to achieve sustainable development and social equity anchored on indigenisation, empowerment and employment creation. However, in view of the youths and economic analysts, the country is in disarray as a result of policies that only exist on paper. “Many Zimbabweans are suffering from lack of employment and are opting for smuggling and selling cheap second-hand clothes. This is an indication that the country needs rehabilitation. In a country like Zimbabwe smuggling bales must not be labelled a crime, because people are out of jobs – yet they need to survive,” says independent analyst Trust Hamandishe. As the country’s political and economic crisis lingers on, ordinary Zimbabweans will keep clothes shopping on the streets – and Tatenda and Mabhugu will only be too happy to meet their demand.
First published: Making a living in Zimbabwe by smuggling second-hand clothes