Amid crippling power cuts, Zimbabwe turns to solar energy

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Outside Cecilia Ziwane’s house sits a neatly stacked woodpile next to a small solar panel — her two major sources of energy.

“We cannot do without them,” said the mother of three, who lives in Glen Norah, a working class suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Like the rest of the country, Ziwane has been coping for more than a year with crippling power cuts lasting up to 19 hours per day.

With no sign of the state utility generating adequate electricity, desperate Zimbabweans are reverting to a combination of old and new sources of energy: firewood for cooking and solar for light.

“I would rather have normal electricity supplies. Solar is better but firewood ... as you can see, it is heavy, it is dirty, but I have no choice,” she said.

Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst economic crisis in a decade, with inflation estimated at nearly 500%. The most severe drought in decades has added to the country’s woes, increasing shortages of food and water.

The drought has also made electricity even more scarce. Zimbabwe’s state power utility relies heavily on hydro-power generated by the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River. Lake Kariba, one of the world’s largest man-made bodies of water, is currently only 10% full, compared to 55% at the same period last year, according to the Zambezi River Authority, which manages the dam.

With water levels still shrinking, authorities have severely reduced power generation and, at times have warned of a complete shutdown.

Nor does Zimbabwe have the foreign currency needed to import adequate electricity from neighboring Mozambique and South Africa. The result is the widespread power cuts leaving homes, offices and factories in the dark.

To promote solar energy, the government has removed import duties on solar panels and accessories and encouraged new buildings to include solar power, said Energy Minister Fortune Chasi.

“It is clean, it is sustainable and could save us a lot of the money that we use to import electricity,” said Chasi to The Associated Press. “Climate change means we have to look at alternatives, we can’t rely on hydro power as much as we did before.”

Zimbabwe’s rich and poor alike are turning to solar energy. Small solar panels are perched atop makeshift shacks made from plastic sheets, cardboard boxes, grass and mud in a squatters’ camp on what used to be open land in Borrowdale, one of Harare’s affluent suburbs. Larger solar panels are on the roofs of the substantial homes, just a few meters (yards) away.

“They have money but they don’t have electricity, just like us squatters,” said 78-year-old Chiwenga Mutekede, pointing at the posh houses nearby. “We are in the same boat, solar all the way,” he said with a chuckle. He said he bought his 20 watt solar panel for $15 to power a small radio and his phone.

His wealthy neighbors also praise solar power.

“I just passed my examinations! It was because of this solar panel,” said 12-year-old Rumbidzai Magaya, who said she completed her homework thanks to a light bulb powered by the solar panel.

Some of Harare’s big businesses are using solar power as much as possible. Firms such as telecoms giant, Econet and Schweppes Zimbabwe, which produces and distributes drinks under license from Coca-Cola, have covered their rooftops and carports with solar panels. They say they want their operations to use more electricity from solar than from the national power company.

In the poor Mbare area, a barber used humming clippers to give haircuts to a steady stream of customers. “I had to get a solar panel to stay in business,” said Segmore Chirwa.

Nearby, a diesel generator powered a mill grinding maize (corn) into a meal used to make sadza, a thick porridge that is Zimbabwe’s staple food. Others displayed firewood for sale on street pavements and outside houses.

Energy minister Chasi said rather than firewood, people should go for solar “to save our forests and the environment.”

Glen Norah resident Ziwane agrees. She said although she would rather have the “normal” electricity supplies more regularly, solar “is not that bad.”

“I am getting used to it, but it is still for the rich. I can’t power my fridge, stove and everything with solar,” said Ziwane. “I don’t have the money to cover my roof with solar panels like the rich people do.”