Proclaimed a Growth Point in 1980 under the Government’s growth points policy, Gokwe has rapidly progressed to secure town status in July 2007.
And in line with its growth trajectory, Gokwe is dominated by small-scale formal and informal businesses.
Entrepreneurs dominate the bustling streets of the town; it might as well be a microcosm of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
At daybreak a group of vendors rush to set up their tables to display their various products ranging from agricultural produce to imported manufactured goods at Gokwe Centre.
Imported cooking oil, petroleum jelly, milk powder, detergents, washing powder, laundry soap and bath soap are displayed on a number of the tables, a familiar site reminding anyone born and bred in Harare of their hometown in the past few years.
These establishments in Gokwe are a few metres away from the big retailers like Choppies and Spar, depicting an image of all of Zimbabwe, of a growing informal sector that is causing a headache for the big players.
Their imported soap is preferred, now, by most customers because it is cheaper and of better quality.
The perfumes are not too strong and it comes in bigger sizes.
The same goes for the baby petroleum jelly and milk powders which are in most cases smuggled to beat the new tax regime which required prior clearance on importation of selected products as part of measures to protect industry.
Although local products have gained ground as imports soared due to foreign currency shortages, imports still thrive in communities such as Gokwe centre where cash transactions remain relatively higher than urban centres.
Austin Chidziro of Gokwe centre said cooking oil is on demand.
“My customers actually prefer the imported cooking oil because it is just cheaper. I get it from my relatives in Johannesburg and we use different means to smuggle it across the boarders otherwise it makes no sense to pay duties,” Chidziro said. Chidziri is like many of the vendors who play cat and mouse with council police on Harare’s streets.
Thirty eight year old Barbra Chafa sells empty containers and brooms.
“I travel to city centres or bigger town’s occasionally to get these containers which I then clean and sell.
A five little containers goes for $1 and the bigger ones like the 20 litre one is $6,”Chafa said.
Chafa is divorced and takes care of her 10 year old son. The demand for containers to fetch and store water and opaque beer in the rural areas is high. This business has kept her going for a number of years. Harare’s Mbare Musika has a huge market for containers and packaging material.
Adjacent to Chafa’s table is Innocent Chikomo’s establishment. Chikomo sells eggs and live birds.
Chikomo has seized the opportunity created by aviation diseases in recent years leading to a shortage of chicken and eggs.
On a good day, he says, customers buy 40 trays by mid-day. Sometimes, he runs out of supply.
“I get my eggs from Chegutu that’s why I sell them at $6 a tray of $1 for five eggs,”Chikomo said.
In Harare, eggs have become a good business with those close to producers making a killing.
Before the scourge of aviation diseases, a tray of large eggs sold at $3,50. Currently, medium sized eggs are on the shelves for $6 a tray.
About 90 km south of Gokwe centre is Manoti business centre. Despite the bad roads, the business centre is like any other rural business set up in Harare.
However, some of the products are more expensive because of transport costs. It costs $6 or $7 for one to travel the 90km between Manoti and Gokwe centre. This is almost the same amount paid by commuters between Harare and Mutare.
At Manoti, Terrence Shumba runs a small confectionery business.
The business operates from his brother’s shop.
Gioven the nature of his products, which must be sold while fresh, young Shumba has found ways to reach his customers.
He make deliveries at the homes of his loyal customers and attends all school sporting events.
“Doughnuts sell the most and especially at school sporting events which bring together a lot of people. My sales peak from Thursday to Sunday,” he said.
Shumba uses his profits to pay for accommodation in Kwekwe where he is completing his college education.
The cotton marketing season is about to start. This represents big opportunities for business in the Gokwe area.
“Most of our customers will be liquid once they start getting paid for their cotton,” Shumba said.
However, cotton prices have been on a slippery slope in recent years with a number of farmers abandoning the crop for other alternatives.
Sesame seeds are becoming a popular alternative.
Despite the different environment in terms of access to power transport, businesses in Gokwe have found ways to survive.