For shop­pers, ‘it’s a night­mare’

Zim­babwe strug­gles amid hy­per­in­fla­tion, eco­nomic down­turn

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Farai Mutsaka

HARARE, ZIM­BABWE — When go­ing shop­ping, the only thing Isa­iah Macheku can bud­get for is shock.

Hy­per­in­fla­tion is chang­ing prices so quickly in Zim­babwe that what you see dis­played on a su­per­mar­ket shelf might change by the time you reach the check­out.

“It is a night­mare,” Macheku said. “I can’t plan.”

Be­fore a coup un­seated the late pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe in late 2017, Macheku could af­ford all his fam­ily’s ba­sics on his salary, which equals about $24. Now the same amount can hardly buy 8.8 pounds of beef.

He ended up buy­ing chicken skin for his fam­ily’s sup­per. “I can­not af­ford the ac­tual chicken,” he said.

It is the clos­est his fam­ily gets to eat­ing meat.

Zim­babwe now has the world’s sec­ond high­est in­fla­tion af­ter Venezuela, ac­cord­ing to In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund fig­ures. The south­ern African na­tion went through this a decade ago but says there is no get­ting used to it, and cop­ing has be­come both cre­ative and des­per­ate.

This time Zim­babwe’s econ­omy has been on a down­ward spiral for more than a year as hopes fade that Mu­gabe’s suc­ces­sor and former deputy, Pres­i­dent Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa, will de­liver on his prom­ises of pros­per­ity.

“Any­one who thinks a so­lu­tion is in sight must be very brave,” said econ­o­mist John Robert­son in the cap­i­tal, Harare. “Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials don’t want to ad­mit the real causes and don’t want to fix the real prob­lems. Peo­ple should brace for worse.” He said the real causes in­clude the gov­ern­ment spend­ing be­yond its means.

To shop, money alone is no longer enough. Cal­cu­la­tors, mo­bile phones and note­books have be­come nec­es­sary tools. In one sparsely at­tended gro­ceries whole­saler, there were more peo­ple tak­ing pic­tures of price stick­ers than those pick­ing items from shelves.

“I sent the pic­tures to my hus­band. We have to de­cide fast be­fore the prices go up again,” said one shop­per, Mar­i­anne Hove. “He is in an­other su­per­mar­ket send­ing me pic­tures of the prices there. We com­pare and de­cide which items to buy and from where.”

Oth­ers did quick cal­cu­la­tions and called home to con­firm items to buy.

In other shops, prices are only avail­able at the check­out — and even then the cashier might stop a cus­tomer mid-pay­ment to change prices.

Re­tail­ers said they would go out of busi­ness if they don’t ad­just prices fre­quently.

“It is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble to ap­pro­pri­ately price goods. The re­place­ment value has been our Achilles heel,” said Den­ford Mun­tashu, pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­a­tion of Zim­babwe Re­tail­ers.

The sit­u­a­tion is “syn­ony­mous with hy­per­in­fla­tion” even though the gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics of­fice has stopped pub­lish­ing an­nual in­fla­tion data, Mun­tashu said.

Some busi­nesses are clos­ing while oth­ers are lim­it­ing their prod­uct range to re­duce risk, he said.

Prices in Zim­babwe are chang­ing faster than at any point in a decade.

In 2009, the coun­try’s cur­rency col­lapsed un­der the weight of hy­per­in­fla­tion. The gov­ern­ment then adopted a multi-cur­rency sys­tem dom­i­nated by the dol­lar.

This year the gov­ern­ment out­lawed the use of for­eign cur­ren­cies, part of fre­quent and some­times con­fus­ing changes to the coun­try’s mone­tary frame­work.

The lo­cal cur­rency has been rapidly de­valu­ing, “fos­ter­ing high in­fla­tion, which reached al­most 300 per­cent in Au­gust,” the IMF said last month.

Weak­en­ing con­fi­dence, pol­icy un­cer­tainty and a con­tin­u­a­tion of for­eign cur­rency mar­ket dis­tor­tions are ex­ert­ing pres­sure on the ex­change rate, the IMF added, while a se­vere drought and for­eign debt ham­per­ing Zim­babwe’s ac­cess to ex­ter­nal fund­ing have im­pacted the econ­omy hard.

Most busi­nesses im­port prod­ucts from abroad due to the col­lapse of lo­cal in­dus­try. For­eign cur­rency short­ages and rapid de­val­u­a­tion of the lo­cal cur­rency are hard on both busi­nesses and cus­tomers.

Zim­babwe’s pres­i­dent con­tin­ues to ap­peal for more time.

“Get­ting the econ­omy work­ing again from be­ing dead will re­quire time, pa­tience, unity of pur­pose and per­se­ver­ance,” Mnan­gagwa said in a state of the na­tion ad­dress Oct. 1.

Like Mu­gabe, the pres­i­dent largely blames U.S. sanc­tions for the cri­sis, while the U.S. points out that the sanc­tions don’t tar­get the gov­ern­ment but se­lected of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Mnan­gagwa, over past al­leged hu­man rights abuses.

The pa­tience of many Zim­bab­weans is wear­ing thin, con­sid­er­ing the lengths they are go­ing to cope.

“We can­not con­tinue to live like this. Why did they re­move Mu­gabe if they had no so­lu­tions?” said Harare res­i­dent Praise Sibanda.

TSVANGIRAY­I MUKWAZHI/AP

A shop­per does a quick cal­cu­la­tion on her phone Wed­nes­day be­fore buy­ing gro­ceries at a store in Harare, Zim­babwe.

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