Harare, Zimbabwe — School uniform maker Noah Mauto sits on a black couch in his home, writing down the details of a modest client order.
“It’s better than nothing,” he told Al Jazeera.
The 44-year-old’s factory also makes tracksuits and blazers. But the extended product line has offered little cushion against the blow that COVID-19 lockdowns have dealt to his business.
“We are surviving on very small orders, sometimes even from individuals,” he said.
But not all Zimbabwean businesses are suffering the same fate as Mauto’s.
Kerita Choga, 34, launched an errand-running service, Tuma Kerri, in November. Within that short time, she says she has gained hundreds of customers — mostly from the Zimbabwean diaspora — looking to buy goods, including gifts, and to have them delivered to family and friends inside the county.
“The numbers are looking good and I am very encouraged,” she told Al Jazeera.
The two businesses underscore how COVID-19 uncertainty is pushing some firms to the brink, while others are identifying new opportunities in the Southern African nation — and even laying the groundwork for greater growth this year.
I realised there was a huge number of Zimbabweans in the diaspora who struggle to get things done back home when they remit funds … I realised l could be a bridge to connect the services and the client.
Barely hanging on
Like many other nations, Zimbabwe has intermittently ordered restrictions and closed schools since March of last year in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
When schools were reopened on November 9, Muato thought his fortunes had finally changed for the better. His optimism, though, proved premature.
Authorities shut schools again in December after some institutions experienced COVID-19 infections.
Since the close of 2020, Zimbabwe has seen an exponential increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, though with limited and erratic testing, the data is foggy.
Confirmed infections currently top 34,700 — more than double the total for all of last year — and the disease is known to have killed at least 1,353 people in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The death toll from COVID-19 for the whole of 2020 was recorded at 409.
A nationwide lockdown ordered on January 5 was recently extended through mid-February.
“The month of January is traditionally one when we make a lot of money,” said Muato. “Under normal circumstances as a business, we would be swamped with orders and struggling to supply everyone.”
Even if business had held up, Muato said, he would struggle to source enough fabric because his suppliers are not considered essential businesses.
“I really want COVID to end now,” Mauto says. “Or the lockdown itself.”
He is far from alone.
“The lockdown has drastically affected businesses. The tourism and hospitality sector is the hardest hit,” former president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries Sifelani Jambangwe told Al Jazeera.
But official sectors mask the deeper pain inflicted on Zimbabwe’s informal economy, where some 90 percent of the country’s residents eke out a living and where businesses are not considered “essential” and therefore exempt from COVID-19 restrictions.
“The informal sector players have been affected because they live hand to mouth,” said Jambangwe, adding that they have seen their earnings take a major hit during the crisis.
Finding new opportunities
The Zimbabwean diaspora is believed to be more than three million people strong. Together, they contribute to remittances the country’s central bank estimates hit an all-time high of $1bn in 2020.
The World Bank reckons remittances were even higher — reaching $1.7bn in 2020 and accounting for nearly 11 percent of the country’s economic growth.
Those funds are often an essential lifeline, given that Zimbabwe was mired in an economic crisis before COVID-19 struck and that it has only grown more financially fragile since.
Choga had the idea that with the pandemic making it more difficult for people to afford basic necessities like food and rent, or even leave their homes, there was a need beckoning from the diaspora waiting to be filled.
The informal sector players have been affected because they live hand to mouth.
“I realised there was a huge number of Zimbabweans in the diaspora who struggle to get things done back home when they remit funds,” she said. “Some have old parents that can no longer run around to do errands. I realised l could be a bridge to connect the services and the client.”
In just three months, Choga has taken on five people to service clients who want goods purchased and delivered to friends and family in five other cities around Zimbabwe.
“Although the operating environment is difficult, we managed to create partners in other towns to ensure that our clients continue to receive service, get value for money and business remains afloat,” she said.
But as always, the pandemic presents unique challenges.
A founder in the trenches, Choga is currently personally running an average of ten errands for her clients per week around Harare — a number limited by curfews that mandate shops close at 3pm and people be indoors by 6pm.
“Lockdown has impacted on movement. Some errands need a police clearance and sometimes we don’t have it,” she said.
But that hasn’t deterred her from positioning herself for bigger growth this year.
Choga is developing an app to make it even easier for clients to access her services, she said. And she is currently in the process of registering her firm to move it out of the informal economy and put it on firmer footing.
Hers is not the only pandemic startup eyeing even bigger opportunities on the horizon.
Tatenda Jakarasi is the cofounder of Harare-based food delivery service Munch. Launched in March 2020, the company has enjoyed brisk business ever since.
“From the first lockdown in March, business has really been good. The whole of last year we saw growth in our business right up to December,” Jakarasi told Al Jazeera.
But while people are stuck at home and eager to order food, Jakarasi said business has slowed during the current lockdown because restaurants must close at 3pm.
“Most customers prefer to order food from around 5 to 6pm and have dinner. That has caused a marginal decline in business,” he explained.
But he sees the setback as minor.
“I am seeking to raise up to $500,000 to grow the business,” he said.
But that kind of seed capital — a stretch before the pandemic — may be even harder to come by as long as COVID-19 uncertainty looms over the troubled Southern African nation.