Making strides to improve health and climate resilience in Zimbabwe’s cities

Guest blogger Artwell Kadungure and Alice Sverdlik report on how real progress is being made to improve the lives and livelihoods of informal workers as a result of collaboration with key policymakers.

Artwell Kadungure's picture Alice Sverdlik's picture
Artwell Kadungure is a programme officer at the Training and Research Support Centre (TARSC); Alice Sverdlik is a researcher in the Human Settlements research group at IIED
24 August 2021
Group of people posing for a photo

ZCIEA members and leadership in Masvingo discuss the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change in their workplaces (Photo: copyright Fungai Munetsi/ZCIEA)

In Zimbabwe’s cities, most residents work in the informal economy and face multiple health challenges. These are often linked to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene (collectively known as WASH), air pollution and unsafe workplaces, as well as poor quality housing.

Climate change is also affecting workers as a result of more intense heatwaves and other extreme weather events. And COVID-19 has only heightened the health risks and precarious livelihoods for many.

But past interventions have rarely recognised or systematically addressed the array of complex threats facing informal workers. It is also rare for the workers themselves to be consulted or have a chance to be part of the solution.

Complex risks requiring multi-faceted solutions

As explained in an earlier blog, our project sought to uncover these challenges and co-create inclusive strategies with informal workers in Zimbabwe (focusing on recyclers and urban agriculture workers).

According to our surveys (PDF) of about 420 workers, over 25% had experienced an injury at work during the past year, causing at least half of them to lose working time (and income) of about 10 days. The main reported illnesses were diarrhoea, prolonged coughs and headaches (often as a result of dehydration or exhaustion).

Urban agriculture workers also reported work-related stresses and gender-based violence, such as the sexual abuse of women while working in the fields. And nearly one in three workers reported high levels of ergonomic risks, such as those linked to recyclers carrying heavy loads over long distances.

We also found major burdens linked to inadequate WASH, with women and people with disabilities often facing acute challenges. As one urban farmer explained, accessing water can be extremely time consuming and highly inequitable: “We travel for about three kilometres to the spring, and people with mobility problems like those with arthritis and the disabled are worse off. In October we wake up as early as 2am and come back at about 11am...”

Climate change is only heightening workers’ vulnerabilities. Heat extremes are leading to reduced working times, exhaustion and lower incomes among about 55% of labourers. According to a plastic waste collector: “We know we need to drink more water when it is very hot, but safe water is not easy to get, so we end up drinking less and just stay indoors.”

Successful policy engagements – seizing the moment

But workers are already taking steps to address these risks and are helping to create inclusive, holistic solutions. Thanks to recent interest from policymakers, there are important opportunities to take their ideas forward.

In Masvingo, our partner Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the city council to advance vital changes. This committed to:

  • Provide informal workers with accessible toilets as well as other infrastructure and services to foster COVID-19 safe, healthy working standards
  • Address climate change impacts by promoting green jobs, and
  • Support reforestation efforts with ZCIEA.

The agreement is significant in several ways. Firstly, it demonstrates the willingness of local authorities to engage with informal workers and to address key concerns in a mutually beneficial, respectful manner.

It also allows for joint setting of timebound action plans, with clear targets and joint mechanisms for monitoring progress. This is likely to build trust between these stakeholders over time, itself a key outcome that lays a significant foundation for future collaborative work in Zimbabwe.

“The signing of the MoU with the City of Masvingo is a milestone achievement,” according to ZCIEA’s Secretary General Wisborn Malaya. “Our advocacy and research are beginning to be appreciated among city leaders, and we are now looking forward to partnerships that will transform lives for the better in Masvingo, as well as setting an example for other local authorities.”

Another example is the highly successful meeting, held on 27 July 2021, with key local and national stakeholders to discuss our findings and agree the way forward. The meeting highlighted the urgency to act on major risks that affect informal workers’ health, and on cross-cutting priorities including WASH.

We also discussed how to enhance collaboration with the private sector, build links between national climate change strategies and the informal economy, and support progress on these areas in local authority plans as well.

In the coming months, we will promote further equitable, multi-pronged strategies that can support workers’ health and climate resilience. We seek to create a team of grassroots ‘champions’, who will spearhead a range of capacity-building activities and advocacy to support workers’ wellbeing.

By engaging with practitioners and policymakers from local to international levels, we will explore how our findings may be relevant in other cities with vibrant informal workforces, to better address their array of challenges.

We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Rangarirai Machemedze (TARSC), Nathan Banda (ZCTU), Lorraine Sibanda (ZCIEA) and Wisborn Malaya (ZCIEA) to this blog.

The research on which this blog draws was implemented by the Training and Research Support Centre (TARSC), in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA). This research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) (17/63/145) using UK aid from the UK government to support global health research. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the UK government.