Nqobile Tshili/Flora Sibanda, Chronicle Reporters
WITH only a few days left before the start of the first term for 2023, producers of school uniforms and other learning accessories in Bulawayo are overwhelmed by swelling demand, forcing some to work overnight to meet orders.
The education sector is big business in Zimbabwe and this period presents a lucrative opportunity for uniform and stationery manufacturers and traders.
In Bulawayo, solid small to medium enterprise (SMEs) operators have seized the opportunity created by the closure of big companies in recent years to produce high-quality school wear products, which they supply to schools and shops across the Matabeleland region and beyond.
Operated by skilled personnel, both male and female some of whom served in collapsed companies, the garment producers are recording brisk business, having successfully dismantled the monopoly of the few established players renowned for uniform wholesaling.
In the past, parents and guardians would flood major suppliers of uniforms weeks before schools opened and the prices used to be steep due to a lack of competition.
The situation has now changed as indigenous fashion designers are filling up the space to claim their share of the nearly 6,7 million market of learners in schools across the country.
A Chronicle news crew yesterday visited several uniform producers and traders who operate in different buildings in the CBD and surrounding areas who said they were overwhelmed by customers, as preparations for schools’ first term have intensified.
The services are not just for uniforms but embroidery for satchels, pencil bags, and food bags, among others. At one of the shops, Beverly Court along Herbert Chitepo Street between 9th and 10th Avenue, uniforms from almost every school were on display in small compartments where manufacturing is taking place.
A complete set of uniforms ranged from US$10 going up while bags cost US$25.
Mr Francis Chifamba, who has been a garment designer for more than 20 years and runs Mr Blazer Investments, said he has established himself as a reliable uniform manufacturer in the city. He said this has seen some schools referring parents and guardians to buy from him while also supplying established retailers.
“I once approached one of the companies wanting to supply it with my uniforms but they declined my services. But two years later, they approached me requesting that I start supplying them with uniforms,” he said.
“By then I had already established my market so I declined their offer. This business is extremely good. It has enabled me to buy a house in Matsheumhlophe suburb.”
Mr Chifamba, who started as a gardener before transitioning to become a tailor, said he was passionate about fashion design despite having no formal training in the trade. He said producing quality uniforms is what separates him from some of the players in the industry.
“Right now, as a result of my reputation, I have several schools, Government and boarding schools that refer parents and guardians to come and buy uniforms from me. I also employ several people and I’m happy with how the business is growing,” he said.
Another uniform producer, Ms Olina Thompson, who operates from Beverly Court, said despite stiff competition, the business was doing well as they were making uniforms for individual clients.
“We are not producing for any specific school but we have uniforms for most schools in the city. We have customers who approach us every day. We used to get good business in the past but this year I think the numbers are even better. We are doing very well despite having more competitors,” she said.
Ms Thompson said she was producing uniforms for schools such as Mckeurtan, Robert Tredgold and Coghlan primary schools.
Mrs Eveline Dube who operates along Herbert Chitepo Street between 12th and 13th avenues said due to the ballooning demand for uniforms she has been forced to work throughout the night. She revealed that the spike in business started on Monday as more parents prepare for schools opening next week.
“The orders are overwhelming and I’m forced to work even overnight to meet demand. While I operate from the city centre, I have another machine at home, which makes my work much easier when I work from home,” she said.
“To complement my efforts, l have since hired two tailors who are helping me during the day on a temporary basis just to deal with the orders.”
Mr Francis Tagutanazvo who operates a family investment garments-making business said he has employed four people to assist him to clear the uniforms backlog orders.
“Business has been good so far and we got a lot of orders from schools and individuals. We are busy with Coghlan Primary uniforms and bags for St Patrick’s Primary,” he said.
“I have four people who are helping me beat the deadline. I am sure by next week all the uniforms will be done for collection.” Mr Tagutanazvo said they were leveraging on the fact that when demand for uniforms increases, some suppliers increase prices but they stick to their traditional charges to retain the market.
Mrs Ropafadzai Zungunde who runs Midas Embroidery Services said the demand for uniforms started increasing last week but said their prices remain the same.
“We did not increase our prices because that keeps our customers loyal. We have orders that started coming in last week that we are trying to finish on time, most preferably before the weekend so that everyone can be happy,” she said.
Meanwhile, more people continued to flood established retailers like Toppers Uniforms and Esats to seek finished products for their children.
Toppers Uniforms spokesperson Mr Zechariah Zaza said they have not increased prices despite the growing demand.
“Toppers Uniforms have worked tirelessly to maintain prices for this 2022 back-to-school season as compared to last year. Prices have not been increased at all despite all the challenges post-Covid-19 recovery crisis,” he said.
“Toppers Uniforms remains committed to offering the best quality uniforms at an affordable price.”