Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zimbabwe's Power Woes

Dogged by cash problems, the national electricity company is forced to impose power cuts on its unhappy customers.
Timothy Tigere moved into his new house in Zimbabwe this year after investing more than 12 months’ hard work and a lot of money. He and his small family considered themselves lucky to have a place they could call their own for the first time.

Their happiness would have been complete if they also had electricity and a constant supply of running water. The Tigere family had always taken for granted that as soon as their house was finished, they would be connected to the electricity grid. That did not happen. Water was laid on as soon as they began building, but it runs only every other day.

"People have said our country has become uninhabitable," an angry Tigere told IWPR. "I used to disagree - not having come face to face with the situation on the ground.

“Now I know different. My children have lost their self-esteem because they have been brought back to the Dark Ages. They had never lived without power, and as a result they are lagging behind in school."

His ordeal began when he went to the Zimbabwe Electricity Distribution Company, ZEDC, a subsidiary of the state-run Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, ZESA. After paying the connection fees, he was shocked to learn that the electricity utility did not have the right power-lines in stock – he was told they lacked the foreign currency needed to import them.

Months later, when the cables finally arrived from China, Tigere and other people seeking a connection were asked to buy other components privately, including electricity meters and cable clips. ZEDC should have supplied these, but again pleaded poverty. Tigere and his upwardly mobile neighbours pooled their money, bought the items and handed them over to the company.

However, Tigere's troubles were not yet over. Weeks passed without any ZEDC workers turning up to install the equipment. After asking why, he learned that the company had no vehicles available to carry personnel to the area, only 10 kilometres outside the capital Harare. "They said all their vehicles had been grounded due to a shortage of spares," he said.

Incredulous, Tigere visited the company’s service workshop and found a yard crammed full of vehicles in need of repair, including some recently acquired from China.

Tigere offered to ferry the workers in his own car, but they refused, on the grounds that company insurance did not cover accidents in private cars.

Deeply frustrated, he went home to his furious wife and children to persuade them to accept their fate.

Tigere might have been more philosophical about his situation, since even people who are connected to the grid in Zimbabwe only get electricity for a few hours each day.

The power utility is simply not generating enough electricity to go round.

The biggest power station, Hwange Thermal, is only working at half capacity. Three of its six generators have been hit by a lack of transformers and other spares, once again because there is no foreign exchange to import them.

Three other coal-fired stations, one in Bulawayo, another at Munyati in the Midlands and a third in Harare have not functioned for years. The reason given is that they are too far from the coalfields at Hwange in the far northwest of the country, and this has made them uneconomic. Coal has to travel 550 kilometres by rail from Hwange to Harare, for example.

The country's only hydroelectric power station, on the Kariba Dam across the Zambezi River, is also not running at full-throttle – almost predictably, because of maintenance and cash problems.

But there is a bigger picture, according to ZESA staff.

Zimbabwe imports 35 per cent of its energy from neighbours South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This region as a whole is suffering a dearth of electricity, and the problem is expected to peak next year.

Countries more efficient and less troubled than Zimbabwe are therefore not exporting as much electricity as in normal times because they first have to meet the needs of domestic consumers.

Nor has Zimbabwe been particularly good at paying its bills. Payments to these benevolent neighbours have often been millions of US dollars in arrears, because the Zimbabwean government cannot raise the funds.

Others say Zimbabwe’s energy supply system was stretched to breaking point by a rural electrification programme launched by President Robert Mugabe after 2000. Many believe the programme was an attempt to boost support among the country’s rural majority after the urban vote went against him and his party in a constitutional referendum and a general election that year.

The main thrust of the campaign was to lay on electricity for all rural schools and business centres, and power was also supplied to the homesteads of many village chiefs, no matter how far away they were from the grid.

This essentially political project swallowed up scarce resources that could have helped expand electricity generation. Nor was there much financial return from it, because the 5,000 or so schools and business centres that benefited do not pay electricity charges as they are too poor.

In an attempt to lure back voters in the towns, Mugabe ordered a freeze on charges, so urban residents fortunate enough to be connected to the grid pay ridiculously low prices. But this measure further depleted the power utility’s revenue base.

The southern African winter, now coming to an end, is the peak consumption period, and ZESA is only able to meet half the demand. So the company has begun rationing electricity. At peak times, power is diverted to key areas such as manufacturing, leaving residential suburbs in the dark for long periods.

Although the power authority advertises power cut schedules, it rarely ever adheres to them, so people cannot plan their day to take account of the blackouts. Many consume perishables such as milk and meat as quickly as they can, because refrigerators are down for such long periods.

Others have resorted to using generators, but these do not come cheap. A diesel generator might cost about 1,000 US dollars, a lot of money in this collapsing economy, and then the owner will need to pay another 1,000 dollars a month to buy enough fuel on the black market to keep it running.

An administrator at one Harare clinic said, "We do not have a generator, so we use candles in the maternity ward and other departments."

Despite now owning their dream house, Tigere - a civil engineer - and his lawyer wife are considering joining the three or four million people who have either emigrated or fled from Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

"My wife and I are skilled people," Tigere told IWPR. "There are countries out there which would jump at the chance of employing us. I know there are many other Zimbabweans in the same predicament."

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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