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.
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.
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.