Small businesses in Bulawayo contribute to the COVID-19 response

As the world comes to terms with the impact of COVID-19, manufacturers of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and medical robes are struggling to address shortages in key inputs for their production following disturbances in the global supply chains. Zimbabwe is no exception. As a result, we have witnessed an increase in small businesses, including those in the informal sector, repurposing their production lines to address the urgent need for facemasks, gowns and gloves. With the business development support from the ILO, the Bulawayo Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises (BCSME) is ensuring that its members are at the forefront in filling the PPE gaps in Bulawayo.

News | 29 April 2020
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(ILO News, Bulawayo) Zimbabwe’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed in late March 2020, this provided valuable time to prepare for the pandemic. In the week before the first confirmed case, the ILO’s Employment Promotion and Labour Market Governance Programme supported 78 micro-enterprises in Bulawayo with business management training on Improve Your Business. The training also had an information sharing session on the corona virus which focused on providing entrepreneurs with knowledge on the symptoms; strategies to prevent its spread and sharing the details of organizations that could support them, if infected.

The individual businesses were supported in carrying out risk assessments and to develop business continuity plans to minimize the disruption to their businesses, processes which were guided by the ILO’s Improve Your Business (IYB) module, “Planning for Your Business”.

At the end of March 2020, Zimbabwe introduced a raft of measures to slow the spread of the corona virus, including a lockdown. In light of these restrictions on movements, the businesses were supported with implementing the continuity plans. A great part of these plans was to diversify production from the usual products and to venture into manufacturing essential products required in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The micro-enterprises started making products, such as face-masks, sanitizers and in one case, the production of beds to be used in one of the local isolation centers.

The ILO supported a local business organization, the Bulawayo Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises (BCSME) to ensure it offers key services to members during the crisis. The Chamber was critical in facilitating the key documents to make sure its members continued to operate. The Chamber also supported its members to re-organize their workspaces to enforce social distancing; which entailed moving some businesses to other premises. In addition, BCSME has also been encouraging the use of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for all those who continued to work, while making sanitizers and hand washing facilities more readily available.

As of Friday 17 April 2020, thirty-one (31) micro-enterprises were operating with 25 producing masks, five focussing on detergents and sanitisers and one business producing hospital beds.

Mr. Maxwell Sibutha, an engineer, won a tender from a local hospital to make 200 beds. He is employing five workers to help him achieve this goal. Before COVID-19, he was into borehole drilling.

Ms. Xolile Nxumalo used to produce school uniforms and protective clothing but
when the crisis began, she switched to
producing face-masks. She is currently working on an order of 4000 face-masks and is employing a team of nine workers. Ms Nxumalo has been gradually increasing her production capacity and can now make 1000 masks a day.

Ms Martha Maoche was a producer of hygiene chemicals, but since the on-set of the COVID crisis, she is now focussing on the production of hand sanitisers. She sells her products to local supermarkets and pharmacies. She is currently employing three workers.

These cases are a clear testimony that informal economy operators, if provided with the right support and an enabling environment, they can be a key ingredient to responding to the corona virus. The small businesses are resilient and demonstrate an ability to respond quickly to solve problems in their communities.

However, more could be done to support them, with most of them citing challenges of accessing adequate raw materials because production processes of their traditional suppliers have also been disrupted.

Informal economy workers should be a crucial part of the response to COVID-19 pandemic and beyond in the recovery stages. This will ensure greater reliance on local production, employment creation and improving incomes for self-reliance.