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Zimbabwe food scene revives

24 November 2010, 13:01

Harare - 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 "dollarisation" - with the US dollar the de facto currency after the government ditched the local money battered by hyper-inflation - revives the capital's food scene.

"Everything was a major problem. You went to a specialty restaurant which didn't have the specialty," recalled restaurant critic Dusty Miller at independent weekly newspaper The Standard.

"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%," 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.

Wad of cash

Choices range from one-dollar spots selling "sadza", a traditional maize porridge with a dollop of stew, to a chocolate shop offering 75 flavours.

"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 Z$100 000 tonight, I could eat a beautiful steak but tomorrow I couldn't buy a potato with that money," said Bunga.

"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.

Luxury foods

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.

Likewise supermarkets, whose empty shelves forced many shoppers to cross borders to buy the basics, are 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.

"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," said Pavlou, "so that's a sign that obviously the grocery industry is growing fast."

Second straight year of growth

Like many shoppers, Mary Mbewe is glad the days are gone when half a litre of long-life milk could cost Z$60bn and a kilogramme of beef Z$438bn, according to July 2008 state-set prices.

"I can buy whatever I want as long as I have the money," she said.

Though the economy has shown a second straight year of growth, there are still challenges. For one, the bulk of goods today are imported as local suppliers struggle to re-emerge - in a country whose commercial farming was once a source of exports and foreign exchange.

And though the situation has improved since the peak of the food crisis in 2008, when about half the nation's 12 million people needed aid with the failure of crops and the collapse of the economy, some 1.7 million Zimbabweans still need food aid today, according to UN food agencies estimates in August.

Most Zimbabweans "could not dream of coming to a lovely restaurant like this", conceded Miller during Mojo's lunch trade.

Unemployment and poverty remain high, and even civil servant salaries average only about $200, like many Zimbabweans.

"They're lucky to get a square meal on the table perhaps every other day. That is a tragedy," he said.



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