The Sunday Mail
FOR Kim Mhere (name changed), what started off as a routine shopping experience at one of the new malls in Harare ended in a medical facility, as she nearly broke her leg.
“I am still traumatised by what happened. I walked into a popular shopping mall (name withheld) hoping to buy one or two items. As I was moving around one of the shops, checking out their products, I heard a loud noise and then I was in serious pain,” she recounted.
“One of my legs had been swallowed by the suspended wooden floor that gave in. I suffered some serious bruises and a minor fracture. It is now over three weeks after the nasty incident.
“The shop owners apologised and met my medical bills. I still experience some pain at times and I am struggling to get rid of the scars that I sustained.”
This is not an isolated case.
Several shoppers have had similar experiences – or worse – in mushrooming shopping malls that are no longer interested in aesthetics or safety.
It seems setting up as many stalls as possible in the malls has become the top priority.
Most of the “new” spaces have been set up and brought into operation without being inspected or approved, with some of them being storey structures created by mere “carpenters” who are oblivious of key tenets of structural engineering.
It is believed that many of these structures, which are more like flea markets, do not meet basic requirements to operate as shopping malls.
For instance, the basic material used is wood, including cheap plywood boards. The material makes up almost 80 percent of the structures, and rarely does one find fire extinguishers in these setups.
Chances of fires breaking out at these premises are high given the possibility of illegal electrical connections and overload.
To justify exorbitant rentals, each stall has a socket from which tenants access electricity to power their gadgets.
However, the original infrastructure may have been designed to cater for fewer plug-ins.
Alarmingly, a number of such facilities are sprouting unchecked throughout the country. There are fears that the structures are accidents waiting to happen.
“A building stands on pillars that are not based on some of the materials that are being used for partitioning. But the encouragement would be to use aluminium framing and light-gauge material so that loading compromise is minimised,” said structural engineering expert Archford Munetsi.
“However, there is danger that some of the walls they are demolishing have structural responsibilities. The monitoring is not being done well. They need to know if the demolitions are being done within provisions of the building’s layout. For instance, one might destroy a wall that supports a deck and that will certainly compromise the stability of the existing structure.”
The new version of urban renewal has most spacious buildings giving way to shopping malls. Traditional departmental stores are increasingly being converted into “shopping malls”.
Other formerly huge shops are similarly being subdivided into smaller rental spaces and leased out to people specialising in various businesses, including boutiques, salons, massage parlours and apparel producers. Ordinarily, this makes business sense to the building owners as it increases their profit margins through rentals.
For instance, a single space that could have attracted a rental of US$500 is divided to accommodate at least 10 people who pay US$100 each. This translates to US$1 000.
A shopping mall is generally regarded as a building or set of buildings that contain retail stores, usually with interconnecting walkways that enable visitors to easily move from one store to the other.
The walkways may be enclosed.
In North America, the term shopping mall is usually applied to enclosed retail structures, while a shopping centre or shopping plaza refers to an open-air retail complex.
But customers seem to like the new trend and convenience being brought by the so-called shopping malls, a development that is also happening in other countries, namely, Zambia, South Africa and Namibia.
“Malls present a memorable shopping experience, especially in this tight economic environment. Apart from getting specific goods within a particular area, there is room for negotiation, which was not possible with the traditional departmental shops,” reckons Loveness Mukuwerere, an avid shopper.
Harare’s central business district (CBD) used to have a few shopping malls — among them Eastgate, Joina City and the now-defunct Ximex Mall.
However, today, malls are all over.
But this has come with its fair share of challenges, and there are clear signs the system needs to be fine-tuned.
For instance, the new malls attract hordes of people yet they are poorly ventilated and do not have proper ablution facilities. Navigating around small malls also presents its own challenges.
Naturally, health experts are concerned.
“Being crowded, especially in poorly ventilated facilities, is a recipe for disaster, particularly in winter, when most people suffer from flu and colds. Similarly, there is a looming cholera and typhoid outbreak in the country, which can worsen if the facility does not have proper toilets,” warned Dr Prosper Moyo.
Town planning experts are also raising the alarm.
They feel most of the existing infrastructure is being strained by the new stalls that were not on the original plans of the city buildings.
According to urban planning expert Dr Percy Toriro, who is currently practising in other parts of Africa, there is need for proper planning when creating shopping malls.
“My general observation is that most of the malls are being set up without following standards on provision of amenities. Ablution facilities for both workers and customers appear inadequate. Most of them also do not meet minimum parking provision as required by town planning standards. This manifests in traffic bottlenecks on roads in front of these new CBD malls,” argued Dr Toriro.
“They also generally fall short on safety; in the event of fires, most do not have sufficient firefighting equipment to minimise the damage before the municipal fire brigade arrives. Only a few CBD malls like Joina City and Eastgate were properly designed to meet shoppers’ safety and convenience.”
Typically, urban planning encourages shopping malls to be concentrated in residential areas.
Dr Toriro cites Johannesburg in South Africa, where many companies have moved away from the city centre to areas like Sandton and other suburbs.
“Shopping malls come with several advantages such as decongesting central business districts, lessening the cost of travel and reducing parking demand pressure in central areas.
“If care is not taken, extensive shopping malls may lead to the decay of the CBD. Some cities, including Johannesburg, have ended up with precincts that are referred to as ghost areas, which have empty buildings left by businesses that relocated to suburban malls,” he said.
Care, Dr Toriro advises, must be taken to maintain the CBD’s attractiveness by improving transport, public safety, parking and other amenities for the benefit of the public. For instance, Joina City provides basement parking facilities for customers.
“Suburban shopping seeks to provide convenience to residents in different parts of cities through the decentralisation of shopping areas that are commonly referred to as shopping malls. This is a growing trend, globally, that is also gaining currency in Zimbabwe.
“A good mall will be located in a place near most people or well-connected by public transport. In terms of its composition and design, it should have a good mix of different types of convenience shops and banks — including supermarkets, as well as hardware and clothing shops. Fast food shops are also common at most malls, which are typically larger than traditional neighbourhood shops,” added Dr Toriro.
An East African and Zimbabwe-based dealer only identified as Nico is said to be one of the leading brains behind the conversion of most infrastructure in Harare into “shopping malls”.
It is said that he pays long-term rentals for spacious structures before converting the premises. But are these sprouting shopping malls legal and what are the conditions for property owners to convert their premises into such facilities?
“Property owners first need to apply to their respective local authorities for approvals to go ahead with the subdivisions. After approval, the municipality will inspect the property and give guidelines on how the subdivisions should be carried out,” Local Government and Public Works Deputy Minister Dr Marian Chombo told The Sunday Mail Society recently.
Government is in the process of identifying those who have disregarded the law, and, in the process, putting the lives of the public in danger.
“Our team will soon descend on criminals who bypass our offices, thus causing chaos. We are also going after those who further subdivide the spaces after final approval. It is not wise to have people crowded in smaller spaces. The aspect of hygiene is disregarded each time numbers swell beyond the accepted holding capacity, and that is a serious health risk,” added Dr Chombo.
Local authorities have been blamed for abdicating their duties.
“Council officials are fully aware that some of these structures are illegal. They even approve sub-standard proposals or, in some instances, do not inspect the premises as they get bribes,” alleged one of the stall owners, Faith Musariri.
Repeated efforts to get a comment from Harare City Council over the past two weeks have been fruitless.
Business players reckon there must be strict monitoring of shopping malls.
“The major positive aspect is employment creation and convenience to customers. However, some of the products they sell are either smuggled or second-hand, which automatically creates an unfair advantage over traditional departmental stores and other businesses,” argues Shadreck Mlambo, who is studying economics with a South African university.
“Naturally, most people will opt to buy the cheaper imports compared to locally manufactured goods, which will obviously be a bit expensive.”
Most of the smuggled goods, particularly clothes, come from countries like China, Dubai, South Africa and Zambia.