Lessons From Crocheting Women in Zimbabwe

I went to a very lively talk yesterday by Professor Mary Osirim, a Bryn Mawr sociology professor who capped a series of talks on women and the global economy. Naturally, I was piqued by her choice of topic, a report on a study that she conducted among women in Harare and Bulawayo, whose primary bread-winning activity is crocheting and knitting clothing and decorations. I thought her presentation style was pleasantly engaging and I truly think that she is a good spokesperson for the challenges that women face in coping with economic crisis and globalization. I share below a number of striking points that cut across the fabric immensely when it comes to women and their role in the global economy.

Women face the harshest conditions in the midst of ethnic conflicts, civil war and other upheavals that characterize much of sub-Saharan Africa, and indeed much of the developing world. Despite obvious crisis, the women show resilience and resistance in their inventiveness, entrepreneurship and strong commitment to their families. The study was conducted in the last decade of the twentieth century.

In order for the women to survive, they engage in micro-enterprise, using lifelong savings as start-up capital, and creative business development to start their trade for sale. A typical source of savings would be sale of a family asset or the proceeds from a retrenchment plan from a workplace. Inevitably, many of the women seek assistance from their families and their husbands are key players in the initial phases of the business.

After the initial idea, many of these women pay for space in a visible section of the town, where they can attract high end consumers to their wares. The city council collects a fee from these hawkers to have part of the ground outside the town hall, for example. They do not get any protection from the weather though, nor are there sanitation facilities specifically for them. The women take their trade seriously and pick attractive colors and designs for comparative advantage over their competitors. In the latter years of the study, these women moved from crocheting to selling batiks and soapstone carvings. These women represent a growing population of migrant workers to South Africa as many of them traverse the border to expand their home market.

Globalization had a significant impact in sub-Saharan Africa, and in late 1990, Zimbabwe’s decision to implement a Structural Adjustment Program saw the laying off of thousands of public sector employees. The removal of price controls from basic goods saw the skyrocketing of the cost of living in the country. The state pushed micro-enterprise as the alternative to unemployment and the coupled effect of intensive competition and the increased price of commodities caused a surge i n competition among the crocheting women of Zimbabwe. One wonders how these women still cope amid such desperate conditions.

Osirim’s talk offered that the women employed

  • Innovation and diversification of sales
  • Rotating weekly or monthly credit schemes in the absence of bank loans.
  • Involvement in cross-border trading as mentioned above.

Overall, the talk emphasised the fact that the women demonstrate a high level of commitment to the firm. The women harboured serious aspirations and wanted to expand their business. As dynamic innovators, they contributed significantly to the community. Despite setbacks such as competition and inflation; working in a hostile environment and no certain hope, these women exemplify what this blogger hopes to learn along the journey.

Professor Osirim has many publications in these areas and is currently working on three books: Enterprising Women: Identity, Entrepreneurship and Civil Society in Urban Zimbabwe, African Voices on Gender Research and Activism in Africa, co-edited with Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Josephine Beoku-Betts and Wairimu Njambi, and Global Philadelphia: Immigrant Communities, Old and New, co-edited with Ayumi Takenaka.


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