THERE is no doubt that locals are innovative.
However, novel ideas and trends often progressively lead to a bandwagon, where everyone wants to get in on the action.
Once someone starts a thriving venture, almost everyone tries their hand at it.
Who has forgotten the chihuta (quail) craze that became trendy around 2016?
A few years before that, people were jostling for the ‘‘sack potato and mushroom production,” which also took the country by storm.
And, most recently, almost every street corner leading to residential areas now has a vehicle branded “car air-conditioning refill”.
The concept was introduced by a couple of guys but has spread like veld fire.
The list is endless.
However, it appears there is a new trend in town.
Most spacious buildings in towns and cities are slowly giving way to shopping malls, with the owners subdividing their properties into smaller rental spaces.
The space is being rented out to people specialising in different trades, which include boutiques, salons, garment-making and massage parlours, to mention but a few.
While this has helped create employment, it has come with its fair share of challenges.
For instance, some of the new malls are attracting hordes of people, yet they are poorly ventilated and do not have proper ablution facilities.
Naturally, health experts are sounding the alarm.
But are these new shopping centres legal and what are the conditions for property owners to convert their premises into such?
“Property owners first need to apply to their respective local authorities for approvals to go ahead with the subdivisions. After approval, the municipality will inspect the property and give guidelines on how the subdivisions should be carried out,” said Local Government and Public Works Deputy Minister Dr Marian Chombo.
Government, she said, is in the process of flushing out those that disregarded the law.
“Our team will soon descend on criminals who bypass our offices in the process causing chaos. We are also going after those that further subdivide the spaces after final approval.
“It is not wise to have people crowded in smaller spaces, especially during these Covid-19 times. Also, the aspect of hygiene is disregarded each time numbers swell beyond accepted holding capacity, and that is a serious health risk.”
Harare City fire brigade and ambulance technician Shepard Tsiga, who is also the Warriors Covid-19 compliance officer, agrees.
“We are not yet out of the woods. Covid-19 is still in our midst, thus protocols ought to be adhered to. Overpopulation, especially in poorly ventilated facilities, is a disaster. There is obviously no social distancing, some people will obviously not be sanitising or even mask up, and this is a health time bomb.
“Likewise, without proper rest-rooms or in situations where toilets cannot contain the huge numbers, we should be careful because typhoid and cholera outbreaks could explode,” he said.
Harare’s central business district used to house a few shopping malls, among them Eastgate, Joina City and the now-defunct Ximex Mall.
However, today they are all over.
Many argue this could be the reason why departmental stores have either shut down operations or are sinking.
Competition from either second-hand or cheaper products offered by smaller retailers (also known as runners) has been too much to handle for most giant retailers.
The runners buy the bulk of their stuff in South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Dubai, China and Turkey, among other places.
Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme emphasised the need for innovation in business.
“This is a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe’s urban development trends but we are simply following what is already happening in other countries,” said Chideme.
“Days are gone for the big and expensive shops because people now prefer small specialised shops that sell specific goods. These small shops are actually catering for the needs of the market; however, there are guidelines that need to be followed.”
While this has proved to be a positive transformative development in countries like South Africa, Zambia and Namibia, back home, there are clear signs the system still needs to be perfected.
It has emerged that some of the spaces in the shopping malls are being used by drug peddlers.
“We now have some individuals that are taking advantage of the huge volumes of people to sell illicit brews and drugs in formal settings,” revealed one of the runners who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Chrispen Mhizha, who owns a huge shop in Chitungwiza’s Makoni Shopping Centre, subdivided it into 16 small compartments in February last year.
However, he later discovered that his tenants had further subdivided their small stalls into two or three tiny booths.
The supposed tenants were collecting rentals varying between US$400 and US$500 per person.
“I went through all the procedures and was granted permission to subdivide the shop. However, the tenants I got were actually space barons that went on to sub-let the place without my knowledge,” lamented Mhizha.
Smaller compartments have become profitable for many traders and property owners as one only pays for a particular space they intend to use.
Most malls have been taken over by cross-border traders.
Their stuff is usually pegged at lower prices. Moreover, they are also open to negotiation and naturally attract bargain buyers. “I get most of my stuff from Zambia and some locally. I work with smaller profit margins for a quick turnover,” said Vimbai Murima, who operates from one of the new malls.
“I rent approximately two square metres under someone and I pay US$350 rent, which is not a challenge because my line of business has quick returns.”
A runner, Thomas Makope, confirmed business was brisk.
“I am making huge profits. The good thing is we are operating in a licensed area and do not have to play hide-and-seek with authorities like we used to do in the streets. I specialise in clothes that I get from Tanzania and China,” he revealed.
Mitchelle Zinyemba has been running a bridal wear shop for the past three years, paying US$700 rentals per month.
“We have sanitisers at all our entrances and encourage people to mask up every time but oftentimes everyone is busy, so we do not really check if the public is adhering or not,” she said.
Customers are equally loving the new trend.
“The huge all-purpose shops are expensive and have no room for negotiation, while malls are flexible, we can negotiate for price, which means they are open even to low-income earners,” said Charles Moyo.
His colleague added: “However, while it is good to modernise, we need to be careful because a lot is happening in the malls; for example, the selling of alcohol and drugs.”