Zimbabwe: Harare urban vulnerability assessment


In May-June 2001 FEWS Net, with support from its implementing partner, the Food Economy Group (F.E.G.), and in close collaboration with the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, conducted an assessment of urban vulnerability in greater Harare. The purpose of the exercise was twofold: 1) to conduct a rapid baseline assessment of urban livelihoods, focusing on household patterns of expenditure, and sources of food and income, and, based on this, 2) to develop a practical monitoring system that provides an early indication of declining access to food and essential cash income.

The poorest households in May 2001 were those earning less than Z$4,0001 per month. These households for the most part had only one income source, either because there was only one able-bodied person of working age in the household, or because of a lack of capital to start up an informal sector activity. Some households in this group include formal sector workers at the lowest salary levels. Others include one household member who is engaged in an informal sector activity such as small-scale vending. A particular problem for those households active in the informal sector is that incomes are irregular and vary daily.

At the next income level (Z$4,000 - 8,000), households have one slightly higher formal sector income source (usually from the same categories as the bottom group: factory workers, security guards, shop assistants, etc), sometimes combined with a second income from small-scale vending. Many of the informal sector home industries (small tuck shops, carpenters, welders, hair salons and the like) and some vendors also fall into this income range. At the higher income levels (Z$8-15,000, Z$15-50,000, >Z$50000), income is obtained from a variety of sources: private and public sector employees have regular salaries; and businesses of various types (both formal and informal) provide incomes to their owners.

The standard of living of the poorest households is low, and they are forced to largely do without a variety of commodities that are considered to be basic by households that are better off. These include milk, bread, meat, kapenta2, chicken, rice, margarine, bathing soap, and body lotion. In addition, these households repeatedly stated that they cannot afford health care or transport. Often they are in debt on their water and electricity bills, paying just what they have to pay to avoid being cut off. Items that are considered to be essential by these households include maize grain, sugar, cooking oil, green vegetables, salt, milling costs, washing soap, vaseline, schooling, accommodation, and second-hand clothes.

There is little variation in the diet of the poorest households. They often have only two meals per day and most of their calories come from maize grain, with a small amount from cooking oil, sugar, and, occasionally, dried fish. Vegetables are purchased and add value on the nutritional side, but not very much on the calorie side. At the higher end of the income scale, households can afford a much richer diet, purchasing milk, meat, kapenta, margarine and various other high calorie foods. Absolute expenditure on transport, accommodation, clothing and education also increases as households become richer, as does flexibility to purchase non-essential items.

Where do the poorest households live? Unfortunately for those who seek a simple targeting system, the poorest households can be found throughout the high density and peri-urban areas. However, any organisation seeking to intervene at household level should look out for the following indicators: type of accommodation and rent levels, the availability of services, and whether or not the family has school-aged children who are not attendin g school. The team found that resident association committee members and church groups were able to identify poorer neighbourhoods within each residential area and the poorer residents within an area. This local knowledge could be tapped by any organisat ion seeking to intervene.

Households were clear about the types of shocks that cause them problems. Everyone complained about inflation and the fact that they are constantly battling to keep up with rising prices. Associated with this were specific complaints about devaluation, increases in owners' rates (on housing) and electricity costs, and rising bus fares. For those working in the formal sector, the threat of retrenchment and unemployment is a constant worry. In the informal sector, households fear a crackdown by the local authorities on 'illegal' businesses, which can result in businesses losing goods, tools and/or capital. Households in both the formal and informal sectors are vulnerable to the illness or death of (or divorce from) the main income earner, and this tends to result in a major drop in standard of living. AIDS is a particular threat in this regard. Large, unexpected expenditures (such as on funerals or medicines) also cause major problems for poor households, often forcing them into debt.

In response to these types of shocks, households engage in a number of coping strategies. Most coping strategies are dependent on a household's own human and material resource base. On the expenditure side, the aim is to minimise spending on and consumption of all items, particularly those that are considered to be non-essential: purchasing cheaper and poorer quality food; walking or cycling rather than taking the bus; purchasing second-hand rather than new clothes; sending children and other dependants (including terminally ill people) to rural areas to live with relatives; avoiding expenditure by going into debt (on electricity, water and schooling payments); avoiding expenditure by cultivating crops; moving to cheaper accommodation; consuming fewer meals per day. On the income side , the aim is to maximise incomes from all sources: for those working in the formal sector, starting up informal-sector activities to supplement income; sending children out to work; seeking gifts and taking loans from relatives; renting out rooms; selling assets or drawing down savings; and as a last resort, engaging in undesirable, high-risk, or illegal activities such as begging, prostitution, and theft.

The programme implications that emerge from this assessment have been stated before and researched at great length in studies funded by the World Bank, UNDP, and NGOs. The over-riding problem in urban areas is the state of the macro-economy, which has resulted in business closures, retrenchments, inflation, and shortages of foreign currency. Apart from addressing these issues at the national level, support to the informal sector and to safety nets appears to be key.

The main purpose of conducting this rapid baseline assessment of urban livelihoods was to use it as a basis for setting up a simple, practical monitoring system that could track changes in access to food and income over time. In general terms, it is important to monitor the things that households buy (basic food and non-food items) and the things that they do to obtain income. On the expenditure side , CCZ will continue to monitor retail prices in Harare, adding some items that poor households consume (e.g. maize grain and milling costs) that are not currently included in their existing monitoring system. These prices will be compiled each month into different baskets that will be tracked over time (the existing basket and baskets that are more relevant to the current standard of living of poor urban households).

On the income side, both formal and informal sector incomes need to be monitored. In the formal sector, wages and numbers of people employed will be tracked with the help of the NECs, trade unions and Ministry of Labour. Incomes in this sector change relatively infrequently and should be relatively easy to monitor. In the informal sector, it is proposed that CCZ, with support from FEWS Net, will conduct a monthly mini-survey of informal sector businesses including tuckshops, home industries, and vendors of various sizes. The aim will be to track a small number of businesses over time to get a picture of the trends in income levels in the sector. The informal sector employs a large number of people and no formal channels exist to track the income levels in this sector, hence the need to establish an income monitoring system for the sector to understand the changes in the livelihoods patterns.

In addition to monitoring incomes and expenditure patterns, FEWS Net will monitor indicators that are related to some of the coping strategies that were mentioned above such as trends in non-payment of electricity, water and school fees (including school dropouts) and movements into peri-urban areas (through the organisations working in these areas). If there are major changes in any or all of th ese indicators, this might suggest that it is necessary to redo the baseline rather than simply monitoring different groups' incomes in relation to prices.


In 1998, following the urban food riots in Zimbabwe, organisations using FEWS/NEWU food security reports queried why early warning systems had not predicted the riots. Donors and NGOs, and in particular USAID Zimbabwe, became more interested in information on urban vulnerable groups. In 1999, FEWS looked at the information available on urban vulnerability in Zimbabwe. Based on that, FEWS Net and Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) produced a proposal to establish an urban vulnerability assessment and monitoring system in November 2000. After several meetings chaired by FAO, from January 2001, a loose grouping of interested individuals and organisations met monthly to look at various aspects of urban vulnerability. This led to CARE International producing a literature review of urban vulnerability in February 2001. FEWS Net and CCZ revis ited the November 2000 Proposal to produce an Implementation Plan in April 2001, which has resulted in this pilot urban assessment in greater Harare. The assessment was carried out in May-June 2001 by FEWS Net, with technical support from its implementing partner, the Food Economy Group (F.E.G.), and in close collaboration with the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe. The purpose of the exercise was twofold:

  • to conduct a rapid baseline assessment of urban livelihoods, focusing on household patterns of expenditure, and sources of food and income, and, based on this,

  • to develop a practical monitoring system that provides an early indication of declining access to food and essential cash income.

This report outlines the findings of the urban livelihoods assessment and the structure of the proposed monitoring system.


1 The official exchange rate in May 2001 was US$1 = Z$53.70. The rate on the parallel market was closer to US$1 = Z$140.

2 Small dried fish.

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