$5 and $10 a week

A savings club helps women in Zimbabwe make ends meet.

An illustration of people standing in a line passing large coins to each other with a giant backwards graduation cap spilling a long list/receipt on the side.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Unity Gope

Age: 41

Occupation: Hawker

Lives with: Her four sons, Terence (24), Abraham (22), Takudzwa (15) and Tinodaishe (4)

Lives in: A small two-room home in Dzivarasekwa, a low-income neighbourhood and one of the oldest suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. The unpainted cottage is on a plot Unity bought with her late husband with the intention to build a house. They managed to erect a foundation, slab and some walls, but after his death earlier this year, she can no longer afford the construction costs so the house remains unfinished.

Monthly household income: Unity’s total monthly income from her market stall ranges between $350 and $550. It lessens during times of low economic activity, such as before Zimbabwe’s elections in August 2023. Elections are usually marred by violence, disputes over results and low spending patterns as people preserve cash in the event of post-vote uncertainty. Even now, weeks after the election, traders say business has not yet picked up.

Total expenses for the month: $685

A photo of a person sitting next to a table with piles of grains and spices with another person sitting opposite them.
Unity Gope at her market stall [Tawanda Karombo/Al Jazeera]
Unity Gope at her market stall [Tawanda Karombo/Al Jazeera]

When Unity Gope was growing up in rural Mhondoro – a district in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland West province - she spent her days like other girls in the village: walking long distances to fetch water and firewood for cooking, and doing household chores before and after school.

When she wasn’t working, she dreamed of breaking away and making a new life in the big city, Harare.

After completing primary school, her dream seemed to come true when she was sent to the capital for secondary school. At age 13, she believed life had finally begun.

But like many others living in a changing and politically volatile Zimbabwe - where the economy has hurtled from one crisis to another, culminating in frequent hyperinflation, high unemployment and dilapidation of infrastructure - things were not always easy.

Amid the challenges, she met Shaw Tozivepi. The two married in 1998 and had four sons. Shaw was caring, loving and supportive, Unity says, her face lighting up as she talks about him.

He worked as an informal trader at one of the big markets in Harare, mostly hawking building materials, while Unity also worked as a trader, selling consumables such as dried beans and dried fish commonly known as kapenta.

Together the couple supported each other to care for their children and, although they were not rich, they made time to share special meals of roast chicken, chips and salad, she remembers.

But then tragedy struck in April this year when Shaw died suddenly. He had complained of stomach pains that morning, and visited a doctor for a checkup. But as soon as they returned home, “he collapsed and died”, Unity says. The postmortem found the cause of death was hypertension. “When he died, we were with him."

Shaw was the primary breadwinner, catering for nearly all their needs - a responsibility Unity now shoulders. The family's economic condition has also been made worse by the rising cost of living and Zimbabwe’s stagnating economy, where the yearly inflation has risen from 75 percent in April to 77 percent in August.

“After my husband died, things have been difficult … Even what we used to eat has changed. Even developing our residential stand, we have stopped,” she says. “Right now it's all five of us in two small rooms and it's not really a good situation.”

Unity's big city dream for herself seems further out of reach these days. But amid her struggles, she has also found pockets of support.

A photo of a group of people sitting in a circle talking.
Unity collects money at a weekly meeting of her informal savings club [Tawanda Karombo/Al Jazeera]

The savings club

Every Sunday afternoon, Unity attends a weekly meeting of her informal savings club. Here, members contribute regular savings which they pool together; each person then borrows money from the pool with interest - usually over the period of a week, two weeks or a month - to support their informal businesses or meet their daily household costs.

Commonly known as mukando (contribution), these savings clubs are becoming popular in Zimbabwe, where banks are generally distrusted and where the informal economy thrives.

The clubs are largely dominated by women, and tend to have about 20 or more members, usually belonging to a similar social group or area where they live or trade from.

The Matapi savings club that Unity joined in January has 23 members who all contribute a minimum of $10 each week over four months. The contributions are pooled together and then given out as borrowings to different members at an interest rate of 5 percent per week. At the end of each savings session - usually every four or five months - each member gets back their full contribution plus a share of the interest that’s been accrued.

During periods of high financial demand, such as when schools and colleges are opening and people need to cover the fees, there is higher borrowing demand from members. Unity usually borrows for her sons’ education costs or to order more wares for her market stall.

Zimbabwe’s economy is largely informal; up to 76 percent according to the International Labour Organization (PDF), which also estimates that about 65 percent of those in the informal economy are women.

Only 5 percent of Zimbabweans have savings through formal banking channels, according to financial non-profit Finmark’s 2022 Finscope Zimbabwe Survey (PDF). Even those who are formally employed often only use the banks to get their salaries.

Savings clubs are a source of capital for many people on the economic margins. And being peer-driven, they also have criteria that are less stringent compared with banks, members say.

“At the banks, I can’t get loans because they are very strict and require you to be formally employed and to have collateral which we really don’t have,” says Unity, who does not have any savings in the bank.

“I always find the savings club helpful in the absence of capital through normal banking channels,” says Milliscent Mataranyika, a fellow member of Unity’s club. “Zimbabwe’s economy is just unpredictable; the banking fees and charges are high, we also fear that the currency will be changed and we will lose value and these savings clubs have proven to be reliable and sustainable.”

At one time in Zimbabwe, US dollars, which are now a main medium of exchange, were banned. Previously US dollar bank balances were converted to local currency. All this has eroded trust in Zimbabwe’s banking system so more people are now using savings clubs.

An illustration of a bar graph indicating inflation with the left bar taller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

More savings

The savings club solution has been so successful for Unity and her group that they decided to expand it to include a subcategory where each member saves specifically for groceries.

For this, each member contributes an additional $5 every week (also paid on Sundays). This money is pooled together to buy groceries in bulk - which is cheaper - and all products are shared among the members.

For the period between January and April, members got a pack including 20kg rice, 20 litre cooking oil, a box of pasta, salt, washing soap and washing powder among other basic commodities.

The grocery savings club started in 2022, initially as an idea to save money to buy a celebratory meal on the last day of a saving session, when the group shared the proceeds. At the end of the first session, members bought a bucket of chicken and chips as they distributed their savings. But they soon realised they could do more with the extra money, and decided it was better to convert the chicken and chips savings into a grocery club.

Unity initially only joined the monetary savings club, but after Shaw died, she signed up for the groceries as well. “The savings club is helpful … This helps us even to buy food,” she says.

Losing Shaw has been an ordeal for Unity. She speaks of him fondly and says he is still a source of inspiration that pushes her to wake up every day and work harder for her family. Her children are the most important aspect of her life right now, she says.

Unity worries that as Zimbabwe’s economy worsens, and as business continues to slow down, she might not be able to send her children to school. But she finds solace in having an income; and thanks to the savings club, she is able to borrow to stock up her market stall.

“When I talk to others and hear their struggles I sit down and think deeply that at least I am able to get something from my stall at the market,” she says.

“That alone is what gives me hope. Being able to generate some income and use it to meet some of the expenses gives me this sense and feeling that we are actually better off and that one day we will grow our small savings and order more stuff and grow the business.”

Over the course of August 2023, and as part of a collaborative project, Unity Gope tracked her major monthly expenses with reporter Tawanda Karombo.

Here are the expenses that tested her finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A street vendor sorts through beans.
A street vendor sorts through beans in Harare, Zimbabwe [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]
A street vendor sorts through beans in Harare, Zimbabwe [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Groceries: Savings Club to the rescue

Since her husband died, Unity and her family of four boys have struggled to afford food. But through the grocery savings clubs she joined, she is able to buy the essentials, including bread, maize meal, rice and pasta, and pay a bit less for a bulk supply.

“Even what we used to eat, nice food and all, has changed. Now it's just the basics for survival,” she says.

The cost of food has also risen. To survive the price crunch, Unity also buys on credit from fellow informal traders at the market where she trades. This way, she gets the food her family needs and pays for it later.

“At the market, we sometimes borrow to cover foodstuffs for the days when we don’t have anything … A lot of people sell foodstuffs and other commodities on credit, and this helps us a lot in times when we don’t have anything,” she says.

Last year: $94*
This month: $120

A photo of a pile of bags and boxes of rice and grains and other various essential items.
As part of the grocery savings club, Unity is able to buy a selection of basic groceries in bulk [Tawanda Karombo/Al Jazeera]

University: A 'way out'

Unity could not afford to send her first son, Terrance, to university. But she is sending her second son, Abraham, to study accounting and business management this year.

“University education is our way out of this situation. I want these kids, who are very good in school, to continue. Maybe in the future, they will assist their younger siblings,” Unity says.

Abraham was a month into his studies when Shaw died, and it has been a struggle for Unity to pay his fees of $900 per semester, mobile data and laptop costs. But they have been lucky in that well-wishers are helping pay a portion of what she owes. Unity has to pay only about $327 per semester; but even then, she is struggling.

“Things have been difficult after the death of their father; and even now we haven’t paid for his fees and they have just opened,” she says, worrying that Abraham will be turned away from university if she cannot meet the costs.

He also needed a laptop for school, which she bought on credit and is paying off little by little. And mobile data costs for some online classes Abraham attends are another worry. “Prices have been going up and this is affecting me a lot yet it’s something that I have to cover to ensure that his studies are OK,” Unity says.

Last year: $40* for mobile data; no university fees
This month: $50 for mobile data; $327 for one semester of university fees, paid in August (the balance is being subsidised by well-wishers)

A graphic showing cost of living increases in Zimbabwe.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Transport: A constant headache

Unity’s two younger schoolgoing children do not have transport costs, but Unity and Abraham have to pay daily fares to get to work and university, respectively.

They choose the cheapest modes available - minibus taxis - but the cost is still unbearable, Unity says.

“Abraham requires $5 per day for his university transport. He also needs food at school. I can’t even pay for campus accommodation or for him to rent nearby so it's better we stay together and he goes to university daily but the transport fees are just too much,” she explains.

For her own transport, Unity needs as much as $60 per month. This is $1.50 for her morning commute from Dzivarasekwa to Mbare, where the market she operates from is located. For the trip back home, she needs $1.

“My transport to come to work is also problematic and a major cost worry for me. But we just try to make ends meet.”

The minibuses Unity uses are usually old and dilapidated and are also used by vegetable traders travelling back from the Mbare market. Abraham uses similar but better-conditioned minibuses that ferry people to town, where he catches another minibus that connects to his university.

Last year: $45* for Unity; nothing for Abraham
This month: $60 for Unity; $120 for Abraham

A photo of someone handing someone else a piece of paper.
Unity gives her son money for transport to university [Tawanda Karombo/Al Jazeera]

Property costs: Cooking gas and construction

Thanks to sound financial decisions that Shaw made, the family owns their plot of land and does not pay rent. However, the cost of completing construction on their house has stopped them in their tracks.

“My husband had started building the main house after completing the cottage which we thought would be a temporary shelter for us. Now, after his death, business is tough; I would want to build my full house, but the cost is prohibitive and we have had to stop,” Unity says.

There is another big challenge associated with the plot: no electricity connection.

To cook, Unity uses gas. But increased gas prices in Zimbabwe are worrying. A kilogramme of gas costs as much as $1.60. But there is little Unity can do as her family needs to have food and lunch packs prepared in the morning and a cooked supper at night, she says.

“We don’t have electricity connection at our place and this is a big disadvantage and a major cost for us because we use gas for cooking and gas is far more expensive. We need a lot of money for gas, to the extent that $5 worth of gas refill does not last us a week,” she says.

Last year: $28* for cooking gas
This month: $35 for cooking gas

*Costs were sourced from Unity Gope, Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority, Zimstats, Econet Wireless, and Zimpricecheck

People walk past a money-changers sign at a market in Harare
People walk past a money-changers sign at a market in Harare. US dollars are the preferred currency in Zimbabwe [File: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

Six quick questions for Unity:

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Every month passes by without us having any plan as to when we will start the construction project to finish our main house. Up to now, this month, I haven’t been able to pay school fees for university.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I had to forgo some foodstuffs, letting the children go without lunch packs for the first week of school opening.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? School fees are the most worthwhile. I have not been able to settle college fees for my son yet. I struggled for school fees for the third born who is in secondary school.

4. When finances get tough - what advice do you have? When I look around me and when I consider that my children are my future and the future of their siblings, I get the courage to go on with life and to wake up and go to work, even when sales are low.

5. What’s your biggest money worry? Not being able to afford my children’s education is a big worry because this is the future I am looking up to. It keeps me awake at night that maybe one day I will not be able to afford their education. But then I consider myself lucky because when I look around, I see a lot of tough situations which are far worse than mine so I consider myself better and this keeps me going.

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? In the market, a lot of people sell foodstuffs and other commodities on credit, and this helps us a lot in times when we don’t have anything. I have also resorted to buying second-hand clothing for myself and my children.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera