"Closed on account of economic weather", says the notice stuck on the door of a hardware shop in a business centre in rural Shurugwi, about 200km northeast of Gweru, capital of Zimbabwe's Midlands Province.
The gallows humour of the notice draws laughter from villagers, who used to depend on the shopping centre, popularly known as a growth point because it served a number of villages in the surrounding area, but is now an indicator of rural economic decline.
Eight years ago the business centre was a hive of activity, where villagers bought groceries and farming inputs, negating the need to travel to towns and cities. These days, just two of more than 20 shops are open.
Munetsi Goronga, 55, owner of the hardware shop, set up a business to supply building materials to villagers, who previously had to travel to Gweru to buy them.
"Business was relatively good in the first three years but started going down fast after that, with the recent price blitz putting the last nail in the coffin," Goronga, who also used to run a small maize mill at the centre, told IRIN.
President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government introduced price controls in June, forcing businesses to reduce their prices by half in an attempt to rein in hyperinflation of more than 6,000 percent - the highest in the world - but the consequences for businesses in both urban and rural areas were dire.
"I had three shop assistants but I was forced to offload them because, in addition to selling at a loss, the hardware products could not be obtained easily from wholesalers," said Goronga, who now lives in the backyard of his shop with his family.
The government crackdown was accompanied by accusations that businesses were fomenting discontent ahead of next year's scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections, though businesses said economic decline was obvious for a long time.
"Evidence was there for everyone who is in business. Over the years, less and less people were coming to buy because their incomes were being eroded by inflation. Construction in rural areas was becoming more of a luxury than a necessity, with those intending to build new houses instead opting for the old-fashioned mud-and-pole structures," Goronga said.
From good times to bad
At one store still open at the centre, a shop assistant sat patiently behind the counter, reminiscing about "the good old days", when the shelves were filled with an array of commodities.
"It is such a sad scenario," Margaret Muzvidziwa, 36, told IRIN. "Once upon a time you would find everything from margarine to needles but, as you can see, what is only left are small packets of salt, tea, and tomatoes that we grow in our garden."
|Imagine - one cannot even find a cigarette, let alone matches to light it with. I won't even mention beer, with villagers now resorting more and more to drinking the home made brew|
Custom from the villagers is rare because they have their own gardens, and no longer have tea in the mornings because there is no sugar available. Teachers from the local school and staff from the nearby clinic are Muzvidziwa's main clientele, but their purchasing power has also been destroyed by hyperinflation.
"It used to be such a joy and a source of pride being a shop assistant at this growth point. During weekends and on holidays the place would be full, but the business centre has been reduced to ruins as the economic decline worsens. Imagine - one cannot even find a cigarette, let alone the matches with which to light it. I won't even mention beer, with villagers now resorting more and more to drinking the home-made brew," Muzvidziwa said.
Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist and past chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC), said the decline of facilities in rural areas was a result of "government's ill-placed policies and the general downturn of the economy".
"During the early years of independence the government seemed to be doing everything right, particularly by setting up growth centres as a means of bringing urban facilities to rural communities.
"There was reason to be optimistic, because some enterprising businesspeople were setting up manufacturing firms there, electricity was installed and people did not miss the towns and cities," Makwiramiti told IRIN.
But rural areas were now sliding back to the situation experienced before Zimbabwe won its independence from Britain in 1980, he said, because of a "retrogressive economy and the clear lack of interest to empower rural people through the sustenance of existing infrastructure or the installation of new facilities".
In neighbouring Chirumanzu district, the story is the same: whole shopping centres have closed down, which means villagers are faced with longer walks to the mill to have their maize - when it is available - ground into maizemeal, the staple food.
"It takes a whole day to get to the grinding mill but our problems don't end there because, in most cases, there is no electricity, meaning that we must wait until power is restored, mostly on empty stomachs," John Mariga, 30, of Grand Resettlement Area, in the same district, told IRIN.
Resettlement areas cover 10 percent of the country and are a product of the post-independence period, targeted at relieving population pressure in communal lands. People residing in these areas have no title to the land.
International donor agencies have calculated that more than a third of Zimbabwe's population, or 4.1 million people, require emergency food assistance.
The government has declared the approaching growing season "The Mother of All Farming Seasons", but Mariga is apprehensive because agricultural inputs are hard to source.
"We never used to bother about the availability of fertiliser, seed and chemicals because we would get them at our shopping centre. Even if one were to travel to the nearest town, the problem is that there are no buses, the bridges have been washed away and the roads are in bad shape," Mariga said.
Acute shortages of kerosene, a fuel widely used for lanterns in the absence of electricity, is having a serious impact on the ability of high school children to study for their year-end examinations.
A local shop owner in Masvingo Province, Elisha Mhazo, told IRIN the last time he had stocks of kerosene was in June, while a candle sells for about Z$200,000 (US$0.16 cents at the parallel market exchange rate of Z$1.2 million to US$1), a price many rural people cannot afford.
Fungai Chidyawada, 17, a final-year student at Madamombe High School in Chivi, about 50km south of the Masvingo provincial capital of Masvingo, routinely walks the 30km roundtrip to school with her classmates in the hope that electricity will be available.
|There is no paraffin at the local shops. In order to revise my schoolwork in preparation for the exams I have to return to school in the evening, where there is electricity|
"There is no paraffin at the local shops. In order to revise my schoolwork in preparation for the exams I have to return to school in the evening, where there is electricity. It also makes it easy for students to share the few essential textbooks available," Chidyawada said.
"At times we get to school and sleep there, waiting for electricity to be switched on, to no avail. The power utility does not stick to its switching-on schedules," she told IRIN. The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) has instituted electricity rationing for consumers, as the government electricity parastatal does not have the foreign currency to maintain or repair power stations.
"My family last had paraffin for lighting at home five months ago," Chidyawada told IRIN. She said her parents could not afford candles as an alternative, and anyway, "candles do not last more than one night."
Chidyawada's classmate, Maureen Chibga, told IRIN, "We cannot study by firelight," but admitted that walking to and from school was often too tiring, and the only option left was to use the light of the fire.
Wood, the only reliable source of fuel, is also becoming scarce because villagers have used it extensively ever since a government rural electrification programme foundered many years ago due to financial constraints and escalating costs.
The night-time walk by girls to and from school is a source of concern for parents, and "There is the added danger of these teenage girls being molested by boys in the absence of teachers to supervise their studies," local headman Ocean Mudzivo told IRIN.
"All parents pray that the students do not misbehave during the time they are supposed to be studying, otherwise we will end up with a lot of teenage pregnancies instead of better pass rates," Mudzivo said.
Rural electrification project founders
The Expanded Rural Electrification Programme, launched in 2002, sought to reach all rural schools, health centres, government extension offices and traditional chiefs' homesteads to promote the use of electricity, curb deforestation and spur rural economic development.
While commissioning a solar panel grid in rural eastern Zimbabwe in July this year, Energy and Power Development minister Mike Nyambuya spoke of "considerable progress", although high inflation, foreign currency shortages, high interest rates, price escalations, waning donor support and negative perceptions of land reform have hobbled the initiative.
In 2000 the government launched its fast-track land reform programme, which expropriated white-owned commercial farmland for redistribution to landless blacks, and heralded the onset of an economic meltdown, but has not alleviated overcrowding in rural areas.