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Impoverished Zimbabweans turn to scrap metal trade as inflation bites

People load scrap metal onto a truck at a collection point in Hopley, a poor settlement about 15km west of Zimbabwe's capital Harare.
People load scrap metal onto a truck at a collection point in Hopley, a poor settlement about 15km west of Zimbabwe's capital Harare.
Image: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Shepherd Chowe pushes a cart filled with tins, iron rods and other metallic objects down a dusty pathway in Hopley, a poor settlement about 15km west of Zimbabwe's capital Harare.

It is 11am and Chowe, 46, has arrived at a scrap yard where dozens of metal scavengers wait to sell their wares. For two sacks, Chowe gets paid $6 (R100).

“I start moving around the township at 8am ... asking people for scrap metal or anything metallic they are not using any more,” Chowe said, adding that on a good day he takes home $40 (R668).

Chowe is among Zimbabweans selling scrap metal for survival as the cost of living soars, piling pressure on a population already facing food shortages and high unemployment, stirring memories of economic chaos years ago under veteran leader Robert Mugabe's near four-decade rule.

Annual inflation, which hit 256.9% in July, has cast a shadow over President Emmerson Mnangagwa's bid to revitalise the economy.

By selling scrap metal Chowe can afford to pay rent, buy food and pay school fees for his two daughters.

“Scrap metal has given us hope,” he said.

Zimbabwe's steel industry has been struggling since the collapse of the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company (Ziscosteel) more than a decade ago.

However, in recent years small steel producers working with scrap yard dealers are picking up the pieces.

These scavengers help the steel industry which we supply. Sometimes they [steel makers] lack money to pay us, but the metal is always available.
Scrap yard owner Fungai Mataga

“These scavengers help the steel industry which we supply. Sometimes they [steel makers] lack money to pay us, but the metal is always available,” scrap yard owner Fungai Mataga said, as workers loaded metal into a truck headed for Kwekwe in the Midlands, the home of steel manufactures.

Mataga buys cast iron for $0.15 (R2.51) a kilogram and mild steel for $0.22 (R3.68) a kilogram from scavengers.

“They all come here to sell [metal] for survival,” he said.

The scrap metal trade is not illegal in Zimbabwe, but has raised concerns about vandalism of infrastructure, including that of state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe, which has called for the trade to be regulated.

As Chowe leaves the scrap yard, 19-year-old Mike Mavhunga arrives saddled with sacks of tins.

Every day he wakes up at 5am to walk 10km to Glen Norah, a township west of Harare, his hunting ground for metal.

“My aim is to get at least two bags of scrap metal, which gives me $6. But on a rough day, I get $1 or $1.50,” Mavhunga said. “This is how I survive.”

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