VICTORIA FALLS, ZIMBABWE — Lucy Mbambe had just purchased her bale of secondhand clothes when the bad news hit: Zimbabwe was going on lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus.
At the time, Mbambe, who has a 9-year-old daughter, rented a stall for $150 per month at one of the many flea markets in Victoria Falls. The economic decline — the country’s real gross domestic product dropped by nearly half between 1999 and 2008 — had led to an explosion of such places in Zimbabwe. The stalls are known in isiNdebele, a local language spoken here, as “khothama,” meaning “to bend.” These stalls are known as “K boutiques” because customers need to bend over to select desired items.
With the suspension of all nonessential businesses in 2020, Mbambe had to come up with a plan for how she would sell her products from home. “I decided to take pictures of the clothes I was selling and advertise them on WhatsApp,” she says. “Later I decided to also post on Facebook, and I have never looked back.”
Mbambe’s experience mirrors that of many other street sellers in Zimbabwe who moved shops online to cope with pandemic restrictions. In the case of secondhand clothes, the move had an unintended effect: It upgraded thrifting from bending to chic.
“When I was selling at the stall, I did not have the chance to market my clothes in an attractive way. I was forced to just place my clothes in heaps and customers spend time going through the heap looking for what they want,” Mbambe says.
Now, instead of paying rent on a stall, she carefully sifts through her own pile to select the best items, which she photographs for her social media pages. Sometimes, she sends photos of just-arrived garments to her more regular customers in private. “Purposefully marketing my clothes online means my clients immediately see what they want and come and buy,” she says.
The clientele for secondhand clothes has changed too.
“When I was selling my bale in the city, everyone and anyone would pass shopping by my bale of clothes,” says Charmaine Nyoni, another secondhand seller who migrated from the flea market to selling online when the coronavirus struck. “When I deliver clothes to my clients, I realize that now my clients are those that live in low-density suburbs, whose homes are lavish. To me this means they are clients who have a choice of buying from retail shops.”
Like Mbambe and Nyoni, 63% of Zimbabwe’s population works in the informal sector. And more of their businesses are moving online — during the first six months of 2020, the volume of online transactions in the region increased by 50% compared to the same period in 2019.
“Online platforms really helped secondhand clothes sellers to continue with their businesses during the pandemic,” says Virginia Chisanga, president of the Victoria Falls committee of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations. “Most have continued on that trend even post-COVID.”
This raises the stakes of the Zimbabwean government’s old fight with the secondhand sector, which it alleges is crippling the country’s textile industry. Most bale clothes sold in the country are illegally imported from Western Europe and the United States.
“Attempts to ban [secondhand clothes] have been overpowered by the economic situation of the country,” says Felix Chari, an economics lecturer at Bindura University of Science Education. “The impact of COVID-19 on people’s incomes has also made thrifting popular, and this sector is bound to continue thriving.”
The Ministry of Industry and Commerce maintains that the secondhand clothing market poses “unfair competition” for clothing manufacturers “and ultimately affects the development of the whole cotton-to-clothing value chain,” Minister Sekai Nzenza says.
Both Mbambe and Nyoni say their sales have increased since they moved their businesses online. But that bonanza could come to an end soon — the minister adds that it’s imperative for the government “to develop strategies to regulate such online business opportunities.”
In the meantime, customers like Ruth Nkomo, a monitoring and evaluation officer at a local nonprofit, can continue to enjoy the variety, convenience and affordability of these clothes. “About 75% of my wardrobe has clothes that I bought from secondhand shops,” she says. “I can afford to buy my clothes from a retail shop, but online thrift shops now have good-quality clothes for much cheaper.”
Now, Mbambe is planning the next steps for her business — perhaps hiring people to model her thrift clothes, she says. Moving her operation online made her realize one missing ingredient from her business: branding. At the stall, her operation didn’t have a name. “I did some research online and gave my business a new name on WhatsApp and Facebook: ‘Mbambe Thrift Shop,’” she says.