Sun, Nov 28, 2010 - Page 12 News List

Supermarkets fill up with Harare’s US ‘dollarization’

By Justine Gerardy  /  AFP, HARARE

The cheese section in a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe, is pictured on Oct. 13. Supermarkets in the capital now boast exotica like biscotti and crusty baguette sticks after the government ditched the local money and the US dollar became the de facto currency.

PHOTO: AFP

Zimbabwean restaurant-goers used to pull out giant wads of near-worthless cash that could take longer to count than the time to eat the meal. If the order was even available.

Now diners can peruse anything from wild pigeon consomme to Brazilian churrascaria meats, paid for with a few dollar bills. And once-empty supermarkets boast exotica like biscotti and crusty baguette sticks as “dollarization” — with the US dollar the de facto currency after the government ditched the local money battered by hyperinflation — revives the capital’s food scene.

“Everything was a major problem. You went to a speciality restaurant which didn’t have the speciality,” recalled restaurant critic Dusty Miller at the Standard, an independent weekly newspaper.

“It really was almost ... you paid for your soup when you got it because if you waited till after your pudding the bill had gone up 20 percent,” he said.

Now under a 2008 political power-sharing pact and the introduction of the US currency last year, Harare’s food scene has done a U-turn. Choices range from US$1 spots selling sadza, a traditional maize porridge with a dollop of stew, to a chocolate shop offering 75 flavors.

“Over the past year there’s been a lot happening,” said Joseph Bunga, director of a year-old online restaurant guide catering mainly to middle-class and corporate clients. Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown led to widespread shortages, from fuel to empty supermarket shelves, after years of political turmoil under veteran leader President Robert Mugabe. Yet even during the crisis years, some restaurants were artificially busy.

“If I spent my 100,000 [Zimbabwean] dollars tonight, I could eat a beautiful steak, but tomorrow I couldn’t buy a potato with that money,” Bunga said.

“So what would I do? I’d go and I’d spend the money that same evening,” said Bunga, who once paid for a meal with a wad of cash the size of a rugby ball.

Bunga, who started his “Eat Out Zimbabwe” site with the upswing, estimates that 20 new eateries have opened in the country in the last year.

His guide now lists 238 restaurants, carries reviews for local and visiting “foodies” and recently launched a restaurant booking service.

“There’s more competition out so everyone is fighting for that small percentage of the market that can afford to go out to restaurants,” said Julie Webb, who owns the sleek Mojo’s Brazilian-style barbecue restaurant with partner Mohamed Samy.

Supermarkets, whose empty shelves forced many shoppers to cross borders to buy the basics, are now packed not only with staples but also luxury foods like cakes, mushrooms, Japanese soba noodles and French cheeses.

“It’s improved drastically,” said Marios Pavlou, operations director of the Athienitis Spar grocery, one of several outlets of the global food retailer in the capital.

“Every day was an uphill struggle for us. Most of our days were spent just trying to keep afloat and adjust prices to keep in line with our suppliers,” Pavlou said.

“There are a lot of stores that have opened in past few months and probably before December, another 10 Spar stores are going to open,” Pavlou said. “So that’s a sign that obviously the grocery industry is growing fast.”

Like many shoppers, Mary Mbewe is glad the days are gone when half a liter of long-life milk could cost 60 billion Zimbabwean dollars and a kilogram of beef 438 billion Zimbabwean dollars, according to July 2008 state-set prices.

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