Crippling power outages threaten businesses and jobs as Zimbabweans head for the polls

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By Daily Maverick
Zimbabwe’s floundering economy could nosedive into an unfathomable gorge if President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration fails to find immediate answers to persisting power outages that are affecting both the Southern African country’s productive sectors and households, economists and energy experts have warned.

Due to the economic meltdown that has seen the country’s surrogate currency depreciating daily, the Harare administration is not only failing to find answers to power outages, but also failing to provide adequate health services and pay its restive workers handsomely. This has resulted in many Zimbabwean professionals leaving the country in droves to seek greener pastures in neighbouring countries and the West.

Mnangagwa ran his 2018 presidential campaign promising, among other key issues, to “light up the whole country with electricity”, and erected billboards on all the country’s major highways (see picture). But five years down the line, homes and businesses in the country’s towns and cities, including schools and clinics in the countryside, have been plunged into darkness.

Coal shortages and obsolete equipment at the country’s coal-fired main power generation plant in Hwange in Matebeleland North Province, and low water dam levels at the Kariba Hydro-Power Station, located at the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, have caused Zimbabwe to import electricity from Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia, according to Zimbabwe’s Deputy Energy Minister, Magna Mudyiwa, as Zimbabwe is now failing to meet its daily electricity demand of 1,800MW.

Déjà vu South Africa

Just like South Africa, where power outages have become synonymous with daily life, many electricity consumers in Zimbabwe, such as Harare resident Letwin Mukomberi, have resorted to using firewood and liquefied petroleum gas for cooking; generators to power their houses and solar-powered lamps and candles for lighting, as the electricity challenges show no signs of abating.

“I had lots of raw meat in the fridge, but all of it went bad because we are only getting electricity when we are asleep, and it goes off before we wake up. We are now using LP gas and firewood for cooking but we are doing it at the risk of being arrested by EMA (environmental management agency),” said Mukomberi. “We now have to do all our domestic chores during the day to minimise the cost of buying candles and using all the power in our rechargeable lamps.”

A doctor at a local referral hospital who refused to be identified, said assisting patients was now a difficult exercise.

“Apart from the shortage of key equipment and poor salaries that we earn; the very few apparatuses we have require electricity, which is usually unavailable. And we risk losing some patients as electricity is usually disconnected at times in the middle of operations, but standby generators may develop faults during key surgeries,” said the doctor.

The South African scenario, where some businesses have closed shop, could soon visit Zimbabweans, as many factories, according to some local industrialists, have begun scaling down operations due to the intermittent power outages that are lasting more than 24 hours.

“We have had to reduce our workforce by 60% and cut down on shifts from three to one because we could not break even, as there is very little work that we are doing these days due to the power challenges. It doesn’t help us to employ many people who spend the whole day or two days doing nothing because our machines can only run when there is electricity,” said Kelvin Katiyo, an operations manager at a local food processing company. “It is expensive on our part to run our industrial machines using generators because fuel is expensive; that increases the cost of production, which will ultimately be borne by the consumer,” he added.

Paying the business price

Zimbabwe Confederation of Retailers president Denford Mutashu said several businesses were paying a heavy price for the country’s power problems. For example, mobile phone operators, among several other businesses, have not been spared, making communication difficult, as they are now relying on generators to power their network boosters.

“Power cuts increase the cost of doing business, cause reduction in revenue and shelf life of perishable products. Business is encouraged to adopt alternative (energy) sources like solar and reduce dependence on the grid,” said Mutashu.

CZR President Denford Mutashu

To ease the country’s power problems, Mudyiwa told Daily Maverick that authorities have resolved to set up two new coal-fired plants at Hwange power station.

“We are setting up Unit 7 and 8 power plants in Hwange to add to the existing six plants. They (the two new units) are almost 99% complete. We are in the process of synchronising the components of these plants and the completion of these units will add 600MW to the national grid, with one of these two units contributing 300MW, which will reduce our imports that are about 500MW and too much for the country to sustain. We expect to commission Unit 7 in the next few weeks,” said Mudyiwa.

Solar farms

The junior minister said the Mnangagwa administration was also adopting the use of “solar farms” to harness solar energy that would be added to the national grid. A Chinese firm is reportedly making significant strides near Victoria Falls where it has set up a solar plant earmarked to add at least 100MW to the national grid.

“We are lucky that we have the sun 365 days a year and we are encouraging Zimbabweans to invest in solar farms which will ultimately reduce our reliance on electricity,” she added.

The country’s finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, said restoring power supply stability was central in accelerating economic transformation as the country is failing to attract significant private sector investment and other financing instruments that have impacted the country’s electricity supply, leading to rolling blackouts.

“While efforts towards plant optimisation at Hwange Thermal Power station and increased output at Kariba Power Station has increased domestic electricity generation output by 10.04% to 6727.82 GWh for the period January to September 2022, up from the 6113.92 GWh recorded during the same period in 2021, the better performance has not been sufficient to meet increased demand from the growing economy,” said the finance chief. “Ongoing works at the Hwange expansion project will be sustained by disbursements from the China Exim Bank loan facility and additional resources to be mobilised by the parastatal, as well as Z$3-billion from the fiscus for local works.”

Ncube said an additional $13.5-million from the country’s development partners would target rehabilitation of distribution and transmission infrastructure, ongoing works for the Kariba Dam rehabilitation, green energy sources intervention, as well as provision of technical assistance.

Finance Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube

Zimbabwe has also partnered Zambia in the Batoka Gorge power project that will see the two countries constructing a hydroelectric power plant with a generation capacity of 2,000MW. The project, that will also see the construction of a flamboyant hotel and a golf course near the mighty Victoria Falls, located along the Zambezi River, has drawn condemnation from the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization, which said it would affect the heritage status of one of the “Seven wonders of the world”.

Thumbs up

Both Mnangagwa and his Zambian counterpart, Hakainde Hichilema, have given their thumbs up to the venture, which would cost the two countries about $4.5-billion. Sources in the Zimbabwean government say both Harare and Lusaka were engaging the African Development Bank for financing of the project.

Renowned economist Brains Muchemwa says after two successive decades of underinvestment in energy products and neglect of existing infrastructure, plus serious challenges on the macro-economic front that has resulted in Zimbabwe losing its own currency twice, it becomes difficult for Harare to court the long-term funding required to finance such projects.

“Equally, on account of successive years of very high inflation that result in unending erosion of capital, the domestic financial services sector in Zimbabwe is very shallow to successfully syndicate funding for such projects,” he said. “Therefore, the power challenges are not going away any sooner, and the rolling power cuts are significantly affecting productivity and output, impacting on competitiveness of industry.”

Zimbabwe has also moved to remove import duty on all solar products but the shortage of coal has also resulted in other power plants dotted across the country being turned into white elephants – further compounding the country’s power crisis. A diesel-powered power plant just outside Harare with links to former President Robert Mugabe’s son-in-law, was also abandoned before taking off the ground, despite huge sums of money having been invested in the project.

Consumer message

Renewable energy expert Tendayi Marowa said it was time consumers used power sparingly and ensured that key sectors of the economy had power all the time.

“We need to educate our people to use other forms of energy like gas and solar, and leave electricity to our agriculture, mining and manufacturing sectors that require uninterrupted supply of electricity. If we fail to do that, our economy will continue to go on a downward trend,” said Marowa. “We also need to replace all our equipment at most of our power plants because they have exceeded their lifespans; some of the equipment was bought in 1942, so the cost of maintaining the old equipment is very high.”

In 2013, top ruling Zanu PF party politicians forced the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa), the country’s power utility, to cancel all electricity bills of consumers amounting to $170-million, including the late former president Robert Mugabe and some of his cabinet ministers like Mnangagwa, who is now president.

Elton Mangoma, who served as the unity government’s energy minister, told Daily Maverick that all electricity consumers should be forced to pay their electricity bills if the country is to solve its power crisis.

“Those who use electricity should pay for rendered service to allow authorities to service power-generating equipment and pay workers handsomely. Zesa is also failing to pay for coal to use in power generation because it has inadequate resources,” said Mangoma.

The power utility, which wanted to remain afloat in order to import adequate power for the country, was blocked by central bank chief John Mangudya from charging consumers entirely in US dollars.

Howard Choga, acting managing director of the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution, a subsidiary of Zesa, told a local weekly that forex payments were the only way for the power utility to end the power shortages facing the country.

Choga also told state-controlled The Herald recently that the power utility would be able to meet the 3500MW power generation capacity that the country would require by 2025 if the economy grows.