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CHATTING, laughing and some yelling on the top of their voices, the young and old, line the streets of Harare selling all sorts of wares.

With the council having virtually surrendered the war against illegal street vending, which has turned a capital once affectionately known as Sunshine City into one massive open market, vendors have practically been given freedom of the City of Harare.

Consequently, they are selling everything, anywhere, and anytime because they are no longer being harassed by the city’s municipal police officers.

Their new-found freedom has empowered them to invade even the former uptown in their numbers, effectively taking over the city as they set up stalls everywhere.

Among the marauding army of vendors are fresh fruit and vegetable farmers, who have for years been prejudiced by cunning middlemen operating at Mbare Musika, the busiest market for farm produce in Zimbabwe.

These have found a new profitable means of sustenance through selling their produce directly to customers in the central business district (CBD).

As early as 5am these days, several trucks can be seen offloading the farmers and their merchandise right in the CBD where they stay up to as late as 10pm.

“I have been selling my tomatoes at Mbare Musika for many years without realising anything but things have improved since I started selling them on my own and I wish to continue doing so,” said Joice Chingoma who travels daily from Domboshawa where she does her farming.

She now only pays for transport and food, costs that are heavily dwarfed by the amount required to operate a fully fledged market stall where she would be liable to paying tax, rates and bribes.

Before this era of free street vending, vending was heavily regulated and anyone operating outside the law invited the full wrath of the law.

It was hard and uneconomic for one to illegally set up shop in the streets of Harare because you would be arrested and made to pay a fine while your wares would be confiscated.

However, city fathers appear to have decided to loosen up a little.

Meat, fish, fruit, vegetable, rat poison, airtime, cell phones, foot wear and clothing vendors now occupy every single space on all busy street pavements.

Walkways narrowed to thin pathways, pedestrian traffic now has to drift onto vehicular traffic lanes where they have to be on a constant lookout for reckless pirate taxis, belligerent kombi drivers and other motorists.

As the vendors take over Harare, licenced retailers feel robbed with no protection from the law. In the process both the local authority and government are losing much needed revenue from licenced shops. Many shops have been pushed out of business by rampant vending.

“Vendors are a symptom to a problem and unless you address the problem you can’t wish it away, unless you go with a machine gun to shoot the people on the street… Personally I think we need to address the economy… we need to address the root causes of why people are on the street. And the root cause is that there are no jobs,” Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa pointed out recently.

Zimbabwe’s formal unemployment rate has now soared to above 85 percent.

Government indicated that it was formulating strategies to collect revenue from the vendors but the pronouncement has already been met with much contempt and criticism.

“At the moment, we are liaising with the Ministry of Local Government and National Housing to organise them (vendors) so that they directly or indirectly contribute to the fiscus,” said ZIMRA’s director for finance, corporate planning and modernisation, Robert Mangwiro, recently.

According to latest minutes Harare City Council’s finance and business development committee, HCC is also seeking to wholly formalise vending by adding more stalls. The plan will most likely be resisted by vendors who are now used to paying nothing.

Some of the vendors who spoke to the Financial Gazette recently said they would resist any such attempts.

Interestingly, some of the food vendors have also taken aantage of the vibrant social media where they are relaying information about their menus to potential customers in a given area and to communicate with those of their customers who prefer food to be brought to their offices.

“I have displayed my cellphone number so that my clients can use it to call me to place orders. I also use WhatsApp to communicate to other customers who prefer that I bring the burgers to their offices,” said Terressa Marunga, who prepares her fast foods outside one of the popular supermarkets in Harare.

The simple logic is, if turning a profit becomes too hard, it’s easy to quit.

For her and thousands of other traders like her, this makes it a great way to access the first rung of the entrepreneurial ladder and increase one’s earnings.

There has been a marked rise of street fast food vendors that prepare mainly hot dogs and burgers.

Combining sheer innovation and low prices, they offer new and fascinating food items for those on the go.

But in what could be the most daring of a vendor, some could be seen roasting maize cobs at a street corner this week, to attract an evening homeward bound workforce.

Harare Mayor, Bernard Manyenyeni, all but admitted that the city fathers had completely given in on trying to restore Harare’s Sunshine city status.

“They were not welcome from Day 1 and they will never be welcome. Circumstances force us not to act,” he said when asked if HCC has given the city away to vendors.

But president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of the Informal Economy Associations, Lucia Masekesa, says it is not their wish to sell everywhere in Harare.

“We are citizens of this country and we want to contribute to the revival of the economy and therefore we must be allowed to do our businesses properly. We thus want to sell at properly designated areas where people have easy access to our wares. The problem with many local authorities is that they locate their vending stalls away from potential customers and so attract resistance. All we are saying is bring the stalls where the people are and we will duly comply,” she said.

It is estimated that between US$3 billion and US$7 billion is circulating in the growing informal sector, which has been described by government as the “new economy”.

Source : Financial Gazette