December 12, 2022
By Shingai Nyoka I BBC News
It’s after ten o’clock at night and Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is unusually dark.
Chatter and laughter erupt from a small factory in the Willowvale Industrial Park.
Men in overalls sit around a small fire in the moonlight, waiting for the few hours of electricity so they can work.
Losses are normal in Zimbabwe, but rarely are they this severe.
“There is no timetable – yesterday we got it at 10 past 10 but that time is over now,” George Sadziwa told the BBC as he walked around his energy-hungry metalworking machinery. His company Geosad Engineering has orders to manufacture ore mills, fuel and gas storage tanks, but he fears they may miss delivery dates.
“Electricity is very important in our business… From what the government officials are saying, we hope so [situation] should turn around soon. If not, it will be a disaster.”
A call to the utility confirms there is no power return schedule. He should expect electricity between 11 p.m. and midnight.
Some of his business colleagues have also started working nights, George said. Ordinary Zimbabweans are also forced to change their schedules to get up at midnight, iron their clothes, use electrical appliances and catch up on World Cup matches.
Zimbabwe has poured about $2 billion (£1.6 billion) into power generation over the past decade. But the country is still struggling with failures.
The crisis came to a head over the past two weeks when the Zambezi River Authority ordered the closure of Zimbabwe’s Kariba South power station due to dangerously low water levels.
According to experts, the country’s coal-fired combined heat and power plants are supposed to provide the base load, but the aging generators often fail. It has forced the authorities to strain Kariba, depleting the annual water allotment and consuming neighboring Zambia’s share. Water levels were already low due to consecutive droughts.
The country currently produces around 600 megawatts (MW) of electricity with a daily demand of around 2,000 MW.
Zimbabwe is still allowed to generate up to 300 MW from Kariba, Energy Minister Gloria Magombo said. The river authority will check the water levels in early January after the start of the rainy seasSon.
The locals find humor in times of crisis.
In a social media post, an unidentified Zimbabwean demonstrates how to iron his clothes without electricity – by sliding a pot of boiling water over the garment.
The frustration remains. Just outside the central business district in the low-income suburb of Mbare, 43-year-old Wella Chidziva struggles to light a fire to warm up her leftovers before the rain and darkness fall.
She collected empty plastic bags from the street to start the fire – she says petrol is too expensive. For the past two weeks, Chidziva has paused her chicken sales due to the outages and after thirty chickens rotted in her fridge.
Power comes at midnight and there will be no power by 4am, she told the BBC. The three different families who share the single house fight for firewood.
“We’re giving each other the opportunity to cook now, one over there and the other over there,” she said, pointing to the small backyard. “It’s the same as not having electricity, because when it’s there [midnight] the children are sleeping. Now we’re in [the Christmas period] I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Zimbabwe has spent US$2 billion investing in energy products: US$533 million, funded by China’s Sinohydro, to expand Kariba power station and increase capacity by 300MW, and US$1.4 billion for new ones Units at Hwange Thermal power station to add 600 MW to grid. However, Hwange has suffered in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic and payment delays.
“We didn’t invest when we should,” says energy expert Victor Utedzi. He founded the Centragrid solar park, 30 km northwest of the capital, and is in the process of expanding it from a 2.5 MW to a 25 MW plant.
“There is no easy and quick solution to energy problems,” he told the BBC.
“A simple PV solar power plant [takes] three to four years [to set up]. The planning and financing of thermal power plants for construction takes about a decade. A project like Batoka [Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station] – our energy regulator says it will happen in 10 to 15 years. These are the big projects you need to solve the problems we are facing. You can never get out of there in a short time.”
Zimbabwe plans to import 500MW of electricity from neighboring Mozambique and Zambia, but crisis-hit South Africa is also vying for the same output to make up for its shortage. Zimbabwe has already spent over US$1 billion on imports over the past decade, but funding for renewable energy remains low.
“Investors aren’t sure they’re getting their money out,” Mr Utedzi said. “Conditions need to be created that attract funding that others in the region have.”
The government believes the problems are temporary and aims to generate 3,500 MW of electricity within the next two years. In the near term, by the end of the year, another unit will come online at Hwange thermal power station, adding 300 MW to the grid, and that the water level in Kariba will start to rise again.
Though these won’t end the blackouts, Wella Chidziva hopes the lights can be turned back on in time for Christmas.