The human desire to give a dignified burial to kith and kin, even in the hardest of times, is seeing some enterprising individuals finding some opportunities in the funeral services sector, largely dominated by a few major companies.
Zimbabweans, like other people across the world, respect the dead and try as much as possible to ensure that when their loved ones die, they are given a decent burial.
In a country grappling with dire economic problems, such decency is often put to the test as burying the dead is relatively costly, especially in urban areas.
For many years, the funeral services sector has been dominated by a few established companies with branches in most cities and towns.
In Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, a number of small funeral parlors have sprung up over the years, mostly in the Kelvin North industrial area, which is within the vicinity of high density suburbs like Pelandaba, Magwegwe, Mpopoma, Nkulumane, Pumula and Lobengula.
One of the companies is Exodus Funeral Services. Founder and director, Charles Juwake, says he started the company in 2007 after working as a driver for a big funeral company.
Juwake says he formed the company after realizing that funeral services offered by big companies were out of reach for most ordinary people.
The company’s client services manager, Winnie Ndlovu, says they are targeting low-income groups.
“We’re looking at people who are unemployed; those that are selling in the street. We are looking at people in the flea markets; even those who are selling tomatoes. We are looking at people who are doing things on their own to make life go on. We also allow people to form associations and they can came to us as a group.”
Ndlovu says Exodus Funeral Services allows funeral policy holders to include children over the age of 21 unlike some big companies that have age restrictions on such dependents.
She says, “The services we provide here as the same as those provided by the big guns; we are in the same field and we are doing the same things. We are manufacturing our own coffins; we do the body washing; we’ve got the mortuary, the chapel and everything. We have got the hearses which we normally use to the burials and we also have an arrangement in which we provide them with kombis when you are going outside town in rural areas where we normally do the burials,” she says.
Another indigenous company operating in the highly competitive funeral services sector is Flair Funeral Services, which was established a few years ago by former foreign currency dealer and cross border trader, Sibongile Dube.
The expanding funeral services sector has also boosted the operations of informal coffin-making businesses in the city.
Twenty seven year-old Never Honye, a coffin maker at the Mashumba Home Industry in Nguboyenja high density suburb who used to work at a private funeral parlor as a casual laborer, says he makes about 20 ordinary coffins a month being sold for $50 and a few caskets that fetch up to $400 each.
Another coffin-maker, Kelvin Tembo, who started making coffins two years ago, says he learnt basic carpentry at high school and perfected his skills through learning from some of the experienced carpenters at Mashumba.
Like his colleagues, Tembo, a father of two, sells the coffins directly to individual clients and funeral service companies.
“Per day we make about 10 coffins depending on the demand. Our sales depend on touts -there are touts here and if we manage to talk to them nicely, we can manage to sell seven coffins per day. There are different types of coffins –there are domed caskets and there are some budget-caskets like this one that I’m scrapping here which are cheap.”
Despite this lucrative business, Bulawayo mayor, Martin Moyo, says the local authority is not benefiting much from these operations as it is getting little revenue from this sector, which includes the provision of graves to all bereaved families.
Although death haunts many people, it appears as if coffin-making and burial services are the only lucrative business in a city ravaged by Zimbabwe’s harsh economic environment. Most big companies have shutdown in the city, once considered the country’s industrial hub.