Cell phone usage has grown dramatically in Zimbabwe, and there are currently more sim cards in use than there are people in the country – a number in excess of 13 million! This boom in mobile communication has created thousands of jobs, not least of all for the ubiquitous airtime vendors with whom most of us interact with on a daily or weekly basis. Maxwell is one such man.
Maxwell came to Harare from Nyanga in 2005 to improve the fortunes of his family. He has a wife and two kids, a seven year-old son and a baby girl. With no jobs available to him, he struck out on his own as an airtime vendor.
Standing on his spot, at a corner along Rhodesville Avenue in Greendale, Maxwell tells me about the business model vendors such as himself must negotiate. Often lacking decent start-up capital to buy adequate stock of cards to supply a whole day’s worth of customers, first-timers must make do with whatever they have.
Let’s say for example they have fifty dollars. Their commission is 8%. So if they sell $50 on Monday, they will walk home with $4 on top of their starting $50. They now have a choice. Reinvest the $4 for an additional 32c profit the following day, or spend it on food, transport, rent…
Let’s say the vendor reinvests half of every day’s takings into their business. To build up to a take home earning of $10 a day from a $50 initial capitalisation would take 42 consecutive 50% reinvestments, by which time the vendor must have at least $250 worth of buddy cards.
Maxwell tells me that he currently lives on $10 a day. His rent is $8, and he must make do with $2 for everything else. Life is tough, though he is happy to work on the corner that he does, because he has a solid customer base. He made four transactions in the course of our interview, though these were, like most of his sales, for $1 strips. I bought $5 from him myself, which he furtively retrieved from a nearby bush.
He explains to me why he is so secretive about his stash of $5 cards. “On 3rd September 2013, somebody driving a black Toyota stopped here. They waved to me saying they needed airtime. I went to them as though they were customers but when I got to the left side, the passenger side of the car, two guys jumped out the car and started to beat me.” A tussle ensued which ended up with Maxwell being tied up and bundled into the car. It was early evening.
“I thought they would kill me because I would be able to identify all those guys,” Maxwell says, clearly still terrified by the memory. His abductors used a sharp object to cut his arms during the journey, so his fears were quite rational.
Maxwell was eventually dumped in the bushes near Hopley Farm. He had to rely on the kindness of a stranger to help him with a dollar for transport back into town. On the day he was robbed, Maxwell was doing well for himself. He had $400 in cash and $400 worth of buddy cards and he lost it all. His whole business was gone and he was back to square one after an arduous journey to get to where he was. Airtime vendors must carry their whole shop in their pocket.
Fortunately, Maxwell’s friendly nature has earned him some fans in his customers. “Some of my regular customers helped me with money to start again” he says, “one lady gave me $100.”
His troubles weren’t over yet though. After a lethargic response from the police which yielded nothing but a lengthy wait at Central Police Station, Maxwell returned to his corner, only to be accosted by council representatives who demanded that he purchase an annual vending license for $200 or face a penalty, and probably lose his stock. He tells me that he feels afraid and helpless with criminals and the authorities both trying to take from him.
Selling airtime is a tough job with slim margins and stiff competition. You must carry your whole business with you, making you a tempting target for criminals. Working in public spaces means that you are watched and taxed by the authorities and subject to the elements. It has however provided an opportunity for thousands of people to make some money. Our airtime vendors epitomize the grit and willingness of Zimbabweans to make a go of it even when things are hard.