Talent Gore and Anesu Tonde
Parents can make substantial savings by buying uniforms in the informal sector where most are made by dressmakers hunting down substitute materials rather than using standard quality materials in large factories.
Street stalls have benefited tremendously from the recent Government policy blocking schools from selling uniforms or forcing parents to buy these at selected stores, opening the way for home-made uniforms or for those available in the informal sector.
While prices in the formal sector are rigidly set in Zimbabwe dollars with no variation between cash and transfer payments, it is common in the informal sector for prices to vary depending on whether buyers are using cash, mobile money or foreign currency.
Almost all people selling clothes will use any of the three methods using the black-market exchange rates and the 30 percent premium for cash, although this premium continues to fall as more cash enters circulation.
Primary and Secondary Education Minister Cain Mathema reiterated that it was illegal for anyone to demand payment in foreign currency, while the Zimbabwe Republic Police urged the public “to assist us with full information on these businesspersons who continue to break the law”.
However street traders rarely insist on any particular form of payment, simply offering the same item at different prices depending on method of payment but with generally strict adherence to the black-market and premium rates.
According to our survey, school trunks, a basic requirement for pupils starting boarding school, are selling new for $2 000, although it is possible to get a metal worker in the informal sector to produce something cheaper. Tracksuits are going for $1 200 and blazers $1 006 in major school supply shops. These shops use the same price regardless of payment system and refuse to accept US dollars, inviting customers to change their money first.
Uniforms for both boys and girls range between $400 and $600 in the same shops.
Custom-made school blazers however range between $440 and $484 for EcoCash, and a bit cheaper if the customer has banknotes, or US$20 and US$22 if the customer has foreign currency.
Tracksuits are priced between $300 and $400 (or between US$15 and US$20) in mobile money.
Uniforms for both boys and girls are priced between $300 and $400 in mobile money (US$15 to US$20) when custom-made. The parallel market rate for US dollar versus mobile money transfer is 1:22 or 1:16 for cash.
However, stationery is cheaper in some shops compared to street stalls.
For example, a two-quire counter book is going for $25,50 in some supermarkets yet on the streets it is pegged at US$2 or equivalent, which could be as high as $44.
In an interview, one parent, who only identified herself as Mai Junior, decried the cost of school requirements in established retail shops saying she was resorting to the informal market for her Form One child’s school trunk.
“How can a school trunk cost $2 000? Where am I supposed to get that kind of money?” she lamented.
“I am actually thinking of going to Mbare to get a customised school trunk because I honestly cannot afford the ones that are being sold in town. I am just an ordinary civil servant.”
Another parent, Mr Tapiwa Sithole, accused retailers of taking advantage of parents’ desperation since it was the beginning of the year to increase prices.
However it is generally manufacturers who raise prices. Competition is tight in the retail sector while often there are only two or three manufacturers and sometimes even just one for a particular item.
Another parent, who identified herself as Mai Kudakwashe from Chitungwiza, expressed shock at prices in most shops.
“I am very shocked by the prices that I am seeing in most shops. I failed to get a pair of socks because the price is absurd.
“A pair of socks is going for $74 in a shop, whilst on the streets it’s going for $30 or US$2 so you will find that it is cheaper to get on the streets than shops,” said Mai Kudakwashe.
Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) executive director Ms Rosemary Siyachitema said CCZ was conducting investigations on the pricing of back-to-school requirements.
Minister Mathema said retailers should keep back-to-school requirements affordable.
“Everybody in this country should accept Government policies. No one is above the law and it is illegal for shops to demand US dollar payments.
“People should follow the law; we should stop this anarchy and as Government we will not allow such anarchy,” said Minister Mathema.
He said the Government would deal with headmasters who increase school fees without authorisation.
“School heads are busy increasing fees. As Government we are going to deal with all those heads who are going against policy because President Mnangagwa is the one who should approve these fees hike,” he said.
Asked what police were doing about businesspersons who are pricing goods and services in foreign currency, national police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said the police needed assistance from the public to act on those breaking the law.
“We continue to urge members of the public to assist us with full information on these businesspersons who continue to break the law so that we act accordingly.
“It has been difficult for us to arrest some of these people because most of them display local currency prices,” said Asst Comm Nyathi.
He said, ZRP, in conjunction with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s Financial Intelligence Unit, were conducting operations to bring unscrupulous businesspersons to book.