IN her green dress with bulbous sleeves, high heels and fancy earrings, Edith Chiwawa can easily pass for a well-to-do professional.Alongside her two juvenile daughters, clad in jeans and orange tops, there is little clue to the family’s hardships until you learn that their clothes were given to her as payment for menial jobs by a wealthy family from one of Harare’s leafy suburbs.
The single mother lives in a section of Dzivaresekwa suburb, which is being upgraded from being a squatter camp by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
One of the many families in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities who live in a virtual food desert, Chiwawa worries almost daily about how to fend for her children.
They are a little more than a kilometre away from Chesa Business Centre, where there is a supermarket, small grocery shops and eateries but the prices of foodstuffs are well beyond their reach.
On most occasions, her family can only look on with envy as others do their shopping.Victims of urban poverty alongside hundreds of other residents, lead a miserable life in appalling conditions.
Their dwellings are dominated by wooden cabins or cramped houses built using farm bricks. For Chiwawa, life is very tough, a daily struggle for survival.
Her day consists of doing errands and part-time menial jobs for wealthy families in Harare’s Belvedere suburb, where she often tries to charm her bosses into giving her an extra day.
On a good day, like the day she spoke to this reporter, she stops by a fast-food outlet in the city centre to order fresh chips for her children. It is a delicacy and a rare treat.
“I know that fast food is not a healthy meal, but I am feeling too stressed by lack of time and by too much work to prepare a proper meal for the family. Besides, for today it will help ease our troubles. It’s also confirmation to my children that, resources permitting, I want what is best for them,” she says.
In a supermarket in Harare’s Mbare high-density suburb, Grace Sithole — a mother of three — contemplates how best to conduct her food shopping, amid Zimbabwe’s prohibitive prices.
Whatever is cheapest and in season is what her children often eat, substituting one thing for another and in much smaller portions than before.“What I have at home is enough to give them a plain plate of sadza and beans, and it’s very little for each one,” the 35-year-old street vendor complained.
“And for me, I don’t care about going without eating. As a mother, you’re always thinking about feeding your children.”Her 11-year-old daughter Mary (not her real name) has been diagnosed with malnutrition.
“In the morning, we eat plain rice or home-baked bread or even the previous night’s sadza. One a good day we can eat rice with salad, but meat is reserved for supper when it is found. I haven’t eaten fish in a long while,” Mary said.
Sithole and Chiwawa are among many poor urban dwellers who struggle for food daily. They wallow in poverty and do not have control over their own lives.
Yet, with the world population forecast to increasingly urbanise in the coming years, calls are growing louder for governments to consider the expansion of social safety nets to cater for the urban poor.
The enormous size of urban populations and, more significantly, the pace with which urban areas are growing in many developing countries have resulted in severe social and economic consequences.
In countries like Zimbabwe, the demand for key services like water and sanitation, shelter, education, public health, employment and transport, has fast outpaced the capacity to deliver them.
A World Bank 2018 report on Zimbabwe says Harare has joined the growing list of cities of the global south which are confronted by an ever-growing crisis of deficient provision of basic services.
The report says the urban poor find insecure shelter in overcrowded slums with women and children being the most susceptible.“These children have homes and families, but survive by begging or casual work. Many have been deserted or orphaned and have no alternative, but to live on the street. Their survival is tremendously precarious, and, without schooling, they have little hope for any meaningful future and are extremely vulnerable to abuse. For many women, prostitution and crime are the only means to survive,” the report reads.
As evidenced by an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report of 2005, the majority of Zimbabweans, just like Chiwawa, earn their living from the informal sector due to lack of employment opportunities.
In what should normally jolt policymakers into action to plan for a better future, the UN predicts that whereas half of the global population resides in cities and towns today, the world will be two-thirds urban by the middle of the 21st century, with developing countries like Zimbabwe making significant contributions.
“With an expected additional 2,5 billion residents by 2050, largely due to the growth of African and Asian cities, urbanisation patterns will put increasing pressure on infrastructure, institutions, and the environment, raising a host of development challenges,” the UN says in its 2016 habitat report titled The State of African Cities.
Experts believe the levels of urban poverty in Zimbabwe are worrying.“In most urban settings in Zimbabwe, we are witnessing absolute poverty as most families are finding it hard to buy foodstuffs as well as affording decent accommodation,” sociologist Admire Mare said.
“There is absolute and relative poverty in terms of classification. The government and local authorities have a duty to ensure there is an enabling environment to achieve their economic dreams and, in such cases, they require assistance in terms of social safety nets.”
Local government expert Kudzai Chatiza said: “It is necessary to implement urban expansion plans because their absence restricts supply and increases the price of land, which has negative financial, social, and environmental impacts, particularly on the communities with limited resources.”
The escalating food prices, which have affected families throughout the developing world, have underscored the urgent need for governments to strengthen their safety net systems to ensure that the rise in prices of basic commodities does not trigger an increase in poverty rates.
According to the latest edition of the Food Price Watch, global food prices continued to increase between January and March 2018, a trend observed since the recent all-time peak in August 2012.
“Higher production, declining imports and lower demand generally pushed export prices down although international markets continue to be tight for maize,” Food Price Watch noted.
According to a World Bank study titled High Food Prices: sub-Saharan Africa to the New Normal, the region is “in trouble from high prices”.
The food price increases are here to stay, according to the study, which indicated that prices have jumped by more than 43% since 2010, igniting concerns about a repeat of the 2008 food crisis mostly affecting the urban poor.