Bulawayo’s streets an open-air pesticide market

‘Rat poison, cockroach poison here. Dollar for two!” yells a voice from across the street in downtown Bulawayo.

Not too far off, another voice can also be heard soliciting for customers: “This one kills rats instantly. 

On close inspection, the voice is emanating from a backpack against a sidewalk pillar. Inside is an automated loudhailer repeating a prerecorded sales pitch throughout the day. As soon as an interested customer pauses next to the backpack, the vendor springs into action. 

These loudhailers have become part of a marketing gimmick among hundreds of vendors competing for customers, evidence of Zimbabwe’s chronic high unemployment rate.

Elsewhere, selling such evidently dangerous pesticides in the open would attract swift confiscation by the authorities, but here it has exposed the country’s slide to a free-for-all survival mode where anyone can peddle anything in broad daylight, with little or no consequence. 

No one seems to be asking where the items come from, where they are manufactured and what their chemical composition is. Sold in 25 gram sachets that bear no product name, the date of manufacture and use-by date and have no barcode, they also carry no instructions for use.

The vendor simply provides customers with an off-the-cuff verbal instructions, as part of a transaction where the “buyer beware” caveat has never been more necessary.

The proliferation of these pesticides points to a vermin infestation in Bulawayo and a broader economic malaise that has broken down essential services. 

This is evident from the buzzing over garbage that lies uncollected for days by the municipality, as well as a proliferation of cockroaches and mosquitoes. In the past the Bulawayo city council would embark on a city-wide exercise to spray mosquito-breeding areas. It now advises residents to endure the mosquito bites because “these mosquitoes do not carry plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria”.

The deterioration of what was once Zimbabwe’s cleanest city is evident in alleys that have been turned into garbage dumps and open lavatories, with little evidence that local authorities are paying any attention to the African Clean Cities agenda. That deterioration has given rise to an entrepreneurial spirit among residents eager to earn a living.

“First it was soap, detergents and floor polish. Now we are making pesticides,” says Gertrude Mwale, who specialises in making pesticides, selling some of it on the city’s sidewalks and the rest to other vendors. Despite the saturated informal trading sector in the city centre, pesticides offer Mwale a constant revenue stream that augments her other income generating endeavours.

The city council is aware of the illegal sale of pesticides by unlicensed vendors on street corners, says council spokesperson Nesisa Mpofu. “Our municipal police have always carried out awareness campaigns and raids to remove vendors from the streets as the sale of pesticides in the streets is prohibited. The challenges faced are that they recur.” 

Enterprising locals have also taken to sharing on social media platforms formulas to “manufacture” all sorts of products from their backyards without any regulation — and with potentially deadly consequences.

One pesticide and detergent “chemist” advertising on Facebook charges 500 Zimbabwe dollars (about R40) for formulas “with easy instructions to follow at home”. 

“No need to go for training,” the buyers are assured in the post, which also provides the addresses they can get the chemical ingredients from.

This is hardly the “home industry” that Sithembiso Nyoni, Zimbabwe’s former minister of small and medium enterprises development, had in mind during her many years in the portfolio.

The lack of control in the manufacture of pesticides has led to another worry — their use in the rising number of suicides in the city. 

Solwayo Ngwenya, the acting chief executive of Bulawayo’s Mpilo Hospital, says pesticides have become the poison of choice, telling a local daily in January that “this is because there is a lot of unregulated sale of pesticides on our streets”. 

In a country where abortion is largely illegal, desperate teenagers have also turned to pesticides to try to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies, while breadwinners wanting to escape unbearable economic hardships have sought relief from the openly sold poisons. 

Some locals find it ironic that the homemade pesticides sector is thriving in a city whose de-industrialisation over the past two decades has seen the closure of what were once some of the country’s biggest pesticide manufacturers.

Backyard manufacturers have been heard to quip that in the absence of pesticide companies, cockroaches, houseflies and rats might catch the ruling Zanu-PF party of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the popular Citizens Coalition for Change opposite party unaware and take over the city.

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Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri is a freelance journalist

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