For the past decade the town has been the first port of call for Zimbabweans, who were unable to source necessities from basic foodstuffs to petrol and even soap in their own country, and relied on their neighbour for most things.
This year there is a marked shift in commercial activity, and the hawkers in the Francistown bus terminus are idle. "In the past, we used to get most of our money from Zimbabwean shoppers who would buy literally everything, from groceries to hardware and clothing items," Ikalafeng Maruping, a Francistown vendor, told IRIN.
"Ever since their country had a unity government, the number of Zimbabweans buying our wares has been declining on a daily basis. The amounts we realize this year are a far cry of what we used to get in the last few years – they are just not buying anything."
The formation of a unity government in February 2009 has not ended bitter rivalries between President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, but hyperinflation has ended and foodstuffs have again become available in Zimbabwe’s shops.
"These days, when I go home I do not buy anything here," said Ronald Mapfumo, a former Zimbabwean school teacher who now works as an assistant at a garage in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital.
"I would rather keep my money and buy the items at home in Gweru [capital of Midlands Province], because they are now readily available … It does not make sense anymore for me to go through all sorts of hassles, in the process losing some money transporting groceries by bus."
After graduating, Mapfumo taught for nine years in Shurugwi, a mining settlement in Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province. "I qualified as a teacher in 1994 at Mkoba Teachers’ College in Gweru," he said.
"When I started teaching, things were slightly better, but when we got into the new millennium the situation just took a rough patch and it seemed things would never normalize." He relocated to Botswana in 2003. "I tried all sorts of things to make life work, but it just didn’t work, and I moved to Botswana."
Stringent work permit requirements meant he could not teach, but he found part-time work with Zimbabwean friends at garage. "This has been my life – working as an assistant at the garage. I now do some part time teaching at a school in my neighbourhood … and I also offer private crash lessons for school children and college students. The money is not enough, but this is how I have been surviving for all along," he said.
The greater availability of groceries in Zimbabwe has changed shopping patterns. Many Zimbabwean migrants prefer to spend their money in their home country, but US dollars or South African rands have replaced the discontinued Zimbabwe dollar, and they get less in exchange for their Botswana pula.
"Things are much better now, but the biggest challenge is that our currency is still not being properly valued. If you are not careful, you can lose out on a substantial amount through this cross-rate business," said Mapfumo.
A manager at a leading supermarket in Francistown, who declined to be identified, said business had nosedived. "I remember last year we would always run out of stocks, as the Zimbabweans literally swept everything in the shops," he told IRIN.
|I remember last year we would always run out of stocks, as the Zimbabweans literally swept everything in the shops|
"This year things have changed. The Zimbabweans are no longer buying things in bulk like they used to do. From what we have gathered, they now prefer to buy items back home, where, we are told, some things are slightly cheaper."
Clifford Ncube, who runs a small transport company, said there was "virtually no business this year". "In the past, I would do two trips between Bulawayo [in Zimbabwe] and Francistown in one day, but these days I have to stay for days, at times more than one week, before I get a full load."
He originally came from Ndolwane, a village near the Zimbabwean border town of Plumtree, and acquired Botswana citizenship through marriage. "I no longer use a trailer like I used to do in the past. This time around, my loads comprise mostly household furniture and electrical gadgets – there is virtually nothing in terms of groceries."
The slump in demand was expected to have a beneficial spinoff for Francistown residents, as Zimbabwean shoppers had driven up prices. Boitumelo Motsumi, a Francistown resident, told IRIN: "In most cases, the prices of groceries in Francistown were almost double those in other towns."