SPEKE Avenue, a road that links the central business district to Copacabana bus terminus in central Harare, is one of the busiest roads in the city, bustling with people, day and night.
At dusk, the area near the footbridge along Speke Avenue lights up, as vendors holding portable florescent torches light mounds of well-stacked foodstuffs.
Bargain hunters have been thronging this area and other areas in downtown Harare in search of foodstuffs from tuckshops and vendors while avoiding major shops within the central business district, whose prices are ever-rising because of runaway inflation.
Although Zimbabwe’s year-on-year inflation is officially 75.2%, one independent estimate puts it at 717%.
Crossing Leopold Takawira Street, into Speke Square, in the area close to Harare City Council’s Department of Works building, one sees individuals selling a variety of groceries, including commodities such as cooking oil, sugar, rice, and soap.
The groceries are placed on sacks, cardboard boxes and wooden stalls — or anything that can be used.
Business is evidently brisk, given the number of transactions taking place.
During this time of day, the area is teeming with customers looking for foodstuffs sold at relatively lower prices compared to supermarkets.
For instance, foodstuffs like flour, rice and cooking oil have been costing US$2, US$2 and US$4.50 in tuckshops, while sugar costs US$2.20 and US$2.50.
Prices pegged in United States dollars have been relatively stable amid the blight of inflation.
The prices are also lower, as informal vendors neither pay tax to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) nor to Harare City Council. In addition, some of the stock is smuggled into the country.
As part of measures to increase competition, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube scrapped duty on imports of all basic commodities.
This is good news to basic commodity vendors and tuckshop operators, some of whom were surviving on smuggling.
In major shops, prices have been skyrocketing beyond the reach of many. For instance, cooking oil now costs ZW$11 679 (US$5) using the ZW$2 350 rate, up from ZW$10 989 last week. White sugar has been costing ZW$7 459 (US$3.20) while two kilogrammes of rice costs ZW$6 779 (US$2.90).
The prices have been rising faster than salaries, resulting in workers struggling to put food on the table.
Even people from affluent suburbs are thronging tuckshops for cheaper shopping as the economy bites.
Some remain in their cars and hand over grocery shopping lists to their maids or gardeners who do the shopping on their behalf.
Although some grocery vendors operate by day, playing cat-and-mouse with municipal police, most vendors come into town in the evenings when the marauding municipal police officers would have knocked off.
In the evenings, they sell groceries without having to worry about the menacing law enforcement agents, who often confiscate wares and demand bribes.
During the day, it is trickier, but there is always a way.
Most display limited quantities with the bulk of their goods hidden in parked cars or shops.
“Whenever raids occur, it is easier to move my stock. But, it is difficult to run with large stock. So, I try to make sure that I sell fruit during the day. However, when my colleagues come at dusk, I have to sell basic commodities as people will be going home.
“It will be a waste selling bigger products during the day as the council police will be moving around. Also, people will be downtown where there are cheaper products. We will be waiting for customers that fail to get an opportunity to buy during daytime due to work and other commitments,” said a vendor who stays in Kuwadzana suburb but sells in town daily.
While the Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency (ZimStat) in its latest report says food insecurity in urban areas has remained constant at 8% from March 2021 to January 2023, this has largely been dwarfed by current inflation which has worsened food insecurity.
Informal grocery tuckshops have continued to throw a lifeline to poverty-stricken citizens who cannot afford the crazy prices charged by supermarkets.