How wireless culture is helping Zim

internet_cafe_ukExpat Bryony Rheam is inspired by Zimbabwe's growing number of internet-friendly cafs
Caf culture is perhaps not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Zimbabwe. Cholera, starvation and political unrest may be more common associations with one of Africas more problematic countries.

However, since the move to dollarize the economy, cafs and restaurants have mushroomed in all of Zimbabwes main cities. Go to any eating house at any time of day, and youll often be hard-pushed to find a seat. Everyone, it seems, is eating out.

Going back a couple of years, this wouldnt have been the case at all. A meal might cost at least half of the average middle class workers salary. Money had to be lugged around in great big bags as the newest and largest denomination of bank note was always out of kilter with inflation.

On top of that, the food was often disappointing: almost half of the menu was unavailable due to food shortages, or some vital ingredient in a dish had been replaced by something far inferior and totally unsuitable. Portions were small and expensive, and random power cuts often left no choice but for some establishments to close at times when they were most likely to attract custom. Such were the vagaries of a country I left just over two years ago. As a teacher in a private school, I was earning the equivalent of US$18. Eating out was not high on my agenda.

Expensive and over-rated

I recently returned to Zimbabwe for a short visit. I now live on the Copperbelt in Zambia, a place not known for its range of coffee shops and restaurants. I cant remember the last time I went out here. Most places are expensive and over-rated. In fact, I have come to be suspicious of anywhere that is raved about as “wonderful” or “great”. The limited range of what is available in Zambia does make the average person enthuse a little too wildly at what is often a very poor, unoriginal menu.

Going back to Harare after this was like taking a trip to Paris. Places like Sam Levys Village must have about four or five coffee shops, and then there are restaurants and pubs as well. But its not just places like this which have seen a burgeoning of eating houses. Everywhere, it seems, now has a coffee shop. The art gallery, I can understand, and perhaps the museum. But now the bowls club has one and so does a giant wholesalers and a local supermarket chain. And theyre full.

What I came to realize though is that while these places may be full, people actually arent ordering that much. An average coffee will set you back a dollar, two perhaps if its a latte. How long does it take to drink a coffee? Well, all morning if thats what suits you. At home, you see, you probably dont have electricity and with most internet users in Zimbabwe still on dial up, using the internet can be a tricky thing. Zimbabwes phone lines are horrendous, it being almost impossible to call someone in the same city or town as yourself. Zimbabwe Online, more commonly known as ZOL, has cottoned onto this fact and must be making a fortune.

How? Because many of these coffee shops are what are known as ZOL Hotspots, places where you can pick up wireless internet. They offer the first half hour free; thereafter you buy a voucher. What could be better on a cool winters day than to pop along, laptop in hand, to your nearest hotspot, order a cappuccino and spend a couple of hours surfing the net and catching up with emails?


With the collapse of Zimbabwes economy, there is very little manufacture and industry going on at the moment. Most people survive through what is euphemistically termed “networking”: by making deals, in other words. For this, you dont need an office, just a comfortable and discreet place to meet.

And how do the coffee shop owners feel about this? Well, despite some places being full to overflowing, many owners will tell you that they are not doing very well at all. Although they are enjoying the increase in customers, their sales arent great. People arent spending: theyre not buying meals, and unfortunately the tea and cake is not paying the overheads. As one owner commented rather cynically, “We need to start charging people who sit here all day surfing the net.”

Who, then, is spending money? A visit to a restaurant at night will reveal a different type of customer. The coffee shop clientele is mainly white, whereas those prepared to spend more money on an entire meal are mainly black middle class. They tend to save their money for bigger occasions than the ubiquitous coffee and enjoy slightly more lavish entertainment.

However, one thing is certain: both black and white Zimbabweans are enjoying a change in lifestyle. As one friend put it, “We went without for so long, that a lot of people almost see it as their right to spend money on eating out.” Someone else suggested a more ominous reason. “In Zimbabwe, you never know whats going to happen. You just cant sit back and think were OK now.”

So are some people just living it up while they can? This may be nearer to the truth than one might initially think. With increased power cuts, prolonged water woes and an ever present fear of nationalisation, not just of the farms, but of homes and businesses too, I might also be getting in as much caf culture as I could. Long live ZOL.

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