Wed, Jan 11, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Freedom of choice draws Zambians into shopping malls

CONSUMERISM The advent of multi-party elections has helped to replace rationed goods with a variety of choice in the struggling nation


Under the system of socialist one-party rule which ended in the early 1990s, commodities such as chocolate and Coca-Cola were beyond the means of ordinary Zambians.

Such little luxuries were instead the preserve of the rich and powerful. Most citizens had to queue, sometimes for days on end, to get their hands on subsidized staples such as maize, cooking oil and poor quality washing detergent.

Strict exchange controls allowed high profile businesspeople with links to the government opportunities to shop abroad, buy imported foods, clothes and appliances locally or in richer neighboring states.

Today, nearly 15 years later and under liberal economic policies, Zambians have choices.

Imported foodstuffs are cheaper than locally produced foods. Shopping malls have sprung up in and around the capital Lusaka, radically transforming the once socialist southern African state.

Supermarkets, retailers and exclusive boutique shops have sprung up on land where bush and unused land once stood.

These have brought not only chocolate and Coke, but a whole variety of never before available household commodities, brands, services and, as Zambians believe, "freedom."

The impoverished and donor-dependent country has seen the rise of a new and growing middle class who have taken to Internet cafes restaurants, coffee shops, fast-food outlets, hypermarkets, pubs and beauty salons with delight.

With the advent of multi-party rule in Zambia came a raft of harsh economic reforms and liberal policies in 1991. These moves unleashed a steady inward stream of goods and services from South Africa, the UK, the US and the Far and Middle East.

Chinese, Ethiopian, Pakistani, Iranian and Egyptian traders have also found their niche in the Zambian consumer market, joining Indian traders with operations in Zambia that date back to the early 1960s.

David Sampa recalls having had "the privilege" of life under the socialist state.

"You had the money but you did not find certain goods then. Now you have the money and are able to look for what you can afford," the civil servant said.

A handful of city markets still attract most of Zambia's poor. But even here, variety has been boosted by cheap Chinese and other imports. High piles of used clothing and local agricultural produce are a common feature at the city or Soweto markets.

People living in rural areas have increasingly included shopping malls such as Lusaka's Arcades Mall as a high point of their travel to big cities.

Ackson Kaonga regularly travels the 720km from his home in Mpika, north of the Zambian capital, to shop at the Arcades Mall.

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