Turning Out the Lights in Zimbabwe

The power company blames the central bank’s anti-inflation policy for its inability to keep the electricity flowing.

Turning Out the Lights in Zimbabwe

The power company blames the central bank’s anti-inflation policy for its inability to keep the electricity flowing.

These days, the Makoni family can only afford bacon on Saturdays, soon after payday. It has become a symbolic reminder of years past, when Zimbabwe used to run smoothly and they used to breakfast on the typically English bacon, eggs and baked beans.

The Makonis are a middle-class family of five living in a middle-class suburb of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. The family miss the short car trip they used to make to the supermarket to buy breakfast goodies. Because of the ongoing fuel crisis, they now send their eldest son Tatenda down to the shops to pick up the bacon and baked beans and thus save what little petrol they have for more pressing purposes.

When Mrs Makoni opens the packet of bacon she realises it smells bad. Mr Makoni take the bacon back to the supermarket, only to find a long queue of disgruntled shoppers bringing back rotten merchandise. Some have sachets of milk gone sour while others have steaks that have turned green.

“It’s the power cuts,” explained the demoralised shop manager. “We have been having intermittent power cuts for 36 hours.”

Welcome to Zimbabwe in 2006, where such blackouts are daily occurrences and power cuts can last more than two days. It is now quite usual to see smoke rising from gardens and chimneys as people cook food and boil water on open fires. When the power does come back, there is no guarantee it will stay on, and so there is frantic rush to cook the next meal, do the ironing, work on the computer and charge cellphones and batteries. In factories, machines stop operating and pumps go quiet. Assuming you can find them, a packet of six locally-made candles now sell for more than a quarter million Zimbabwean dollars, about 2.50 US dollars.

Officials at the government power utility Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, ZESA, Holdings blame the power cuts on Gideon Gono, the powerful governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

ZESA executive chairman Sydney Gata told the government-owned daily The Herald that the government’s 2003 decision to reverse tariff increases it had already sanctioned was at the heart of the power crisis.

“A government-approved tariff adjustment was implemented in January, February and March 2003 but then reversed by the minister of energy at the request of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which sought to meet its own inflation targets,” said Gata.

This, Gata said, led to ZESA suffering a 45 per cent loss in revenues.

ZESA currently produces a kilowatt-hour (kwh) of electricity at a cost of 1,386 Zimbabwean dollars but because of the low tariffs, sells it for just 218 dollars. As a result of the discrepancy, last year it suffered operational losses of eight trillion Zimbabwean dollars, 80 million US dollars.

“Gono would like the world to believe the loss was due to mismanagement, yet the truth is the buck stops at his doorstep,” said the senior ZESA official. “Because of the loss, ZESA no longer has the money to import power from neighbouring countries.”

ZESA generates about 60 per cent of the country’s energy needs when all power stations are working at full throttle. At the moment, though, several units at the flagship Hwange plant near Victoria Falls are closed because of a shortage of coal and spare parts. Hwange normally supplies 15 per cent of Zimbabwe’s electricity. Small coal-fired power stations in the country’s two main cities, Harare and Bulawayo, have been shut down altogether. When transformer stations break down, they cannot be repaired because there are no spares.

The country imports about 40 per cent of its normal total consumption from South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In recent weeks, all three suppliers have cut off the power intermittently because of ZESA’s failure to pay bills.

Importing electricity costs ZESA huge amounts of money - nearly 12 million US dollars a month, assuming it has the cash. As Gata told The Herald, the company’s total revenue is currently equivalent to only a third of its import costs. ZESA argues that if it could make its customers pay economically viable rates, it would earn enough Zimbabwean dollars both to buy the foreign exchange needed to pay for imported supplies, and to purchase the parts to repair broken-down equipment in power plants and transformer stations.

But the central bank chairman will not allow a price increase. “ZESA is charging sub-economic tariffs, thanks to Gono,” a senior finance official at Electricity House, ZESA’s headquarters in Harare, told IWPR. The official said Gono is blocking tariff reviews because rising electricity prices would drive up the already massive rate of inflation, which reached 613 per cent year on year in January.

What angers the general public is that the power cuts are not planned. In the past, ZESA used the national newspapers to announce the schedule for when different areas would be without power. But now it has stopped making predictions, so people have no way of making provision.

According to Gata, this is because the company is itself unable to do forward planning. “These power cuts are not part of planned load shedding by ZESA. With planned load shedding, we always advised our valued customers of the days, dates and times when it was in operation,” he said. “The [new-style] power cuts are due to factors far beyond the power utility’s control.”

The blackouts plunge many parts of the country into darkness at unpredictable times. Industry is the worst-hit sector, because some plants have no standby generators. Domestic users find themselves unable to cook, while perishables rot in their fridges.

Precious Shumba, spokesman of the Combined Harare Residents Association, said it is scandalous that the public is left to guess when the power might be cut next. “ZESA is taking residents for granted,” he said. “Electricity just goes out at any time of day. It makes it difficult for people to plan their daily schedules.”

There seems to be no end in sight. The long-term solution for Zimbabwe would be to build more power stations while ensuring that existing ones have the resources to keep running. Zimbabwe’s power industry is mulling a 20-year development plan worth more than 3.5 billion US dollars that would see the Hwange coal-fired plant upgraded with two more units, the Kariba hydroelectric station expanded, and a new methane-powered unit built in Matabeleland.

But as the weekly Zimbabwe Independent commented, “All there is to the plan is a document which will be discussed for many years without anything actually being done, as demand for power continues to outstrip supply.

“Zimbabwe will soon not be able to import any power because exporters are anticipating increased domestic demand in their respective countries. Zimbabwe needs help.”

So the expansion strategy is a pipedream, while central bank governor Gono refuses to allow the power utility to increase tariffs in the interim. For the Makonis, a return to their old breakfast habits seems a long way off.

Gideon Chawawa is the pseudonym used by a Zimbabwean journalist.
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