Zimbabwe's soaring prices see online shoppers get groceries from abroad

Friday March 25 2022

A customer strolls past fruit and vegetable shelves while shopping in a groceries store in Harare, Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe's turbulent economy, two litres of cooking oil costs $4.50. PHOTO | AFP


Zimbabwean Clever Murape has his groceries delivered, like people around the world -- only his don't come from a local shop.

His rice, oil and washing powder make a 600-kilometre (373-mile) trip from neighbouring South Africa to his small brick home in a dusty township of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.

The groceries are brought by runners known as "malayitsha" -- literally "people who carry things" -- and they're just one sign of how much of Zimbabwe's economy now takes place beyond its borders.

"My older sister sends groceries through malayitsha every month which is enough for the family," Murape, 35, told AFP.

His sister lives in South Africa and has used online deliveries to help out since Murape lost his job as a scrap metal dealer during the pandemic.

"It has really helped me. There are 10 of us here, including some of her children and our sick mother. We just must ration this food so that we don't go hungry."


In Zimbabwe's turbulent economy, two litres of cooking oil costs $4.50 (just over four euros) if he buys it locally.

But if he buys it from across the border in South Africa, it's $3.50 -- including delivery.

Once synonymous with hyperinflation, Zimbabwe is seeing prices soar once again.

Inflation ran at 66 percent in February.

Early this month, the government raised fuel prices twice within a week, driven mainly by the Ukraine war which has hit oil supplies.

Unlike during earlier bouts of inflation, now an entire genre of mobile apps and websites has emerged to help Zimbabweans survive. 

"Clients get in touch via WhatsApp, select the groceries they want, pay into a South African account and then I deliver," said Mason Mapuranga, a 44-year-old runner.

Branching out 

He crosses the border up to three times a month, travelling along poorly maintained two-lane roads.

Sometimes he's held up for days by delays at the border post.

But he says it's worth the work. Mapuranga and his staff get paid in South Africa, sparing them the uncertainties of Zimbabwe's dollar.

All they do in Zimbabwe is deliver.

The demand has handed opportunities to companies such as Mukuru, a fintech firm that started over a decade ago operating largely as a money transfer business mainly for Zimbabweans in the UK and South Africa.

Now it works in 21 countries across Africa and Asia, and delivers groceries and school supplies in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

It offers fixed baskets with basic groceries, but newer players like Ahoyi Africa and allow people to choose what they want to buy.

Some companies have branched into other financial services like insurance, and even repatriation of remains.

Ukraine war price pressure 

Zimbabwe has about 15 million people but another three million are believed to have migrated to other countries, mainly South Africa, but also across the world.

The World Bank says that the diaspora sends home $1.8 billion a year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the country's GDP.

There are no reliable estimates for the international shopping economy because all the financial transactions happen outside of the country.

Local retailers admit that their prices are higher but say they are forced to navigate a complex system of currency controls and erratic local supplies.

The import trade is only set to grow after Zimbabwe earlier this month lifted border controls imposed during the pandemic, said Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers president Denford Mutashu.

"The opening of the borders will see more people buying from other countries, for necessities and other non-essentials. It makes more sense, and it also alleviates pressure on the low local supply," Mutashu told AFP.

Moscow's invasion of Ukraine is adding to price pressure in Zimbabwe, he added.

Russia was the country's main supplier of wheat and local millers are already raising prices.

"We should be prepared for a wave of price increases in Zimbabwe," Mutashu warned.

"Locally we have been facing challenges to do with inflation. Both local and global inflation figures are rising."