Shipping containers are springing up across the continent as working and living spaces

This has come at an opportune time for the country’s urban councils, overwhelmed by the volumes of informal traders flooding the city streets...

Words: Rumbi Katedza


Photography: David Brazier & Between10&5

This has come at an opportune time for the country’s urban councils, overwhelmed by the volumes of informal traders flooding the city streets to eke out a living selling low-cost goods.

Imhanya’s newest BoxPark is at Harare’s bustling Fourth Street Bus Terminus, which has the highest concentration of people in the country between 7am and 10am.

Through their BoxPark’s compulsory insurance system  they know more or less what tenants have in stock, so they have an accurate measure of the buying power within the markets. This provides useful data on the informal sector for government and other organisations. Imhanya knows what is being sold where, so they know what local communities’ needs are.

Imhanya Director Tafara Gwata emphasises that this hasn’t been done in Africa before. “With 400 people working in one BoxPark, with an average buying power of, say, US$5 000, that’s $2-million. So now they are competing with the big boys and department stores by creating this collective buying power and market capitalisation,” says Gwata.

The BoxParks were designed in consultation with vendor associations, who stressed their preference for an open-air market design allowing for a free flow of people and ventilation, without the constraints of having to compel clients to enter a building. The BoxPark is covered with large awnings for shade, and traders are able to open up their cubicles outward to the pavement to trade. The company opted to use shipping containers for the project because of the economic and environmental benefits they offer.

“Containers are very secure,” says Imhanya director Brendon Malloch-Brown. “They’re waterproof and generally weatherproof. They’re also environmentally friendly because you’re reusing a container at the end of its shelf life. It’s already structurally designed with steel support, so costs are significantly reduced in manufacturing each unit.”

The three business partners were all born in Zimbabwe and attended the elite St George’s College as teenagers. Malloch-Brown is a quantity surveyor and construction specialist, Gwata is a telecoms and IT expert and the third director, Ketan Patel, is an international franchise expert and a former director of African fast-food giant Innscor International and Church’s Chicken in the UK.

With the informal sector accounting for more than 80% of Zimbabwe’s economy, according to government statistics, the partners saw potential.

They looked at their combined skill set and came up with Imhanya, a socially-franchised “last mile” distribution company that converts shipping containers into retail and manufacturing spaces for the informal sector.

Imhanya plans to roll out its franchise of smaller retail units to 1 000 locations across Zimbabwe over the next 10 years. By being a modular and mobile concept and using solar energy, they can quickly place containers able to provide services close to where they are needed. If communities or needs change, they can  place the container on the back of a truck and move it.

After conducting thorough research to find out what needs are underserved in a community, be it infrastructure, grocery stores or even tomatoes, Imhanya staff sit down with the franchisees and develop their businesses.

Patel, who conceptualised Imhanya’s extensive iCycle research method, says local business people ultimately stand to gain.

“In our franchise trading model, if you’re an informal trader and have no capacity to pay capital costs, we will fund the entire project."

"We will take you from where you are to [being} a businessperson by sharing our intellectual property and our systems with you. In return, we will take a percentage of the profits. Over time, the businessperson can buy back into the business up to 75%.”

Imhanya’s directors are confident that using refurbished shipping containers is an excellent solution to empower smaller businesses and informal traders not only in Zimbabwe but across Africa.

"They are competing with the big boys by creating collective buying power "


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