The critical shortage of public transport has resulted in farmers and vegetable vendors transacting in Harare and Chitungwiza markets in the dead of the night, with municipal guards being bribed to allow business to take place.
Under lockdown rules, farmers’ markets are exempt, but can only open between 5am and 11.30am daily .
Vegetable vendors can however, remain at their retail markets well into the afternoon.
The problem with the legal market hours is that Zupco is the only authorised operator of public transport but does not provide night services, even services that would get vendors to the Mbare and Highfield markets in Harare by 4am when officials start issuing tickets to the waiting farmers or 5am when buyers are allowed in.
After buying their supplies, vendors need to get to their selling points, but again are unlikely to find a Zupco bus or kombi with spare seats after dawn as industrial and commercial workers start their daily battle to get to work.
So the vegetable vendors have organised non-Zupco kombis and other transport to get them to the markets in the middle of the night where they slip in for a modest bribe of between $10 to $20, buy their vegetables and use their hired transport to get themselves and their vegetables to their stalls by the time their customers reach the streets.
This night breach of lockdown transport regulations is possible because most police roadblocks are withdrawn at night and the few remaining are fairly easy to avoid, being largely in place to control entry and exit points from the city, rather than travel around the city.
At Mbare Market, Lusaka Market in Highfield and Chikwanha Market in Chitungwiza, farmers enjoy brisk business between 10pm and 4am when groups of vendors organising their own transport sneak in.
Farmers cooperate because they need the customers and because many prefer to make an early start to get home, bringing in their produce the previous afternoon and evening, selling in the night and leaving town at dawn.
Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation director Mr Samuel Wadzayi said the association was aware of the night business but did not support the breach of regulations.
“Yes we are aware of such deals but we do not support that. We urge all our members to comply with the guidelines issued by Government in fighting Covid-19. We believe such offences are committed because of hunger. The promised cushioning funds are taking too long and engaging in illegal night transactions may be attributed to desperation on the part of vendors,” said Mr Wadzayi.
Harare City Council corporate communications manager Mr Michael Chideme said no farmer was allowed to sale produce before 5am. He said council cashiers start issuing out tickets to farmers at 4am and throughout the night council guards would be manning the premises. Vendors were allowed in from 5am.
However, it is the unsupervised night guards who allow the business to take place.
The Herald visited Mbare Market around 11pm on Sunday only to find farmers selling produce while in their blankets. Money changers were busy transacting on the entrance to the farmers’ market while those selling carrier bags were also touting for customers.
A cucumber farmer, Mr Stewart Nyamakosi of All Souls area in Mutoko, said the market was busy between 10pm and 4am because transport will be available for vendors and other non-car owners wanting bulk supplies to come to the market and buy.
“Most of our customers now prefer night deals because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions. I arrived here at 9pm from Mutoko but I started selling my cucumbers by around 10.30pm. The nights are now busier than days because kombis will bring in customers. During the day, there will be no transport and only a few customers come here. Usually by 4am I would have sold all my produce,” he said.
A vendor who preferred anonymity said some corrupt council officers on night patrol are paid bribes in the range of $15 and $20 by the traders before turning a blind eye on the illegal transactions.
“Whenever the municipal police officers catch us transacting before the market officially opens, we pay them between $15 and $20,” he said.
The Herald visited a farmers’ market at Chikwanha Shopping Centre in Chitungwiza on Saturday around 2am, the gate was closed. But pedestrians and motorists were being allowed into the farmers’ market after briefly talking to security guards and paying them money.
One of the guards would then escort the buyers into the market while the other one would remain at the gate.
This writer posed as a sweet potato buyer and was allowed into the market upon payment of US$1 to the guards, who did not issue any ticket. Said the security guard: “Just pay US$1 and I will take you to sweet potato farmers who come from Dewedzo in Rusape.”
Upon entering the premises, people were busy transacting using torches and candles.
An elderly sweet potato farmer who identified herself as “Mbuya Matsvai” said she had started selling around midnight.
“Since my arrival, I have been selling sweet potatoes. I brought 30 bags but I am now left with 10. By 5am, I will be looking for transport to go back to Rusape,” she said.
At Lusaka Market, as early as 3.30am, council cashiers will be issuing tickets to farmers selling their produce in the market. But kombis and pirate taxis are already bringing and taking away groups of vendors while some enterprising traders are selling groceries from car boots.
While it is now Government and local government policy to bring all public transport under the Zupco banner, with Zupco expanding its fleet of franchised kombis and buses, there is a growing shortage of seats as more businesses open under the relaxations of the level 2 lockdown.
This is made worse because of the required social distancing. Conventional buses can carry just three passengers in each row of seats, instead of the normal five, and are banned from carrying standing passengers. Effectively, they travel with about half the passengers they moved before the lockdown. Kombis under the Zupco franchise are limited to two passengers in each row of seats, instead of the four they used to pack in, with just one in the front. With one seat taken by the conductor this leaves them with eight paying passengers.