The rise of solar power and Zimbabwe’s power generation crisis

18 05 2019

The solar power sun is rising

There was little warning of the impending power cuts (called load shedding here). Just a notice from the government owned utility, ZETDC, in the press and the next day we were cut off for 8 hours. That was 10 days ago and they have been very regular since then – alternating mornings and afternoons.

The first one coincided with the demise of a set of lead-acid batteries we’d bought of a local manufacturer in February for our solar system. They’d just been returned under warranty and we’d decided to go upmarket  and more reliable. After a lot of reading up and phoning around and being promised all manner of quality and prices I visited a supplier whom I’ve dealt with in the past and who I know supplies quality equipment.  He also knows what he’s talking about. An hour later and he’d convinced me that lithium batteries were the way to go with their 10 year warranty and superior charging characteristics (3 hours under bright sunlight). Initial outlay is high but lead acid batteries only have a one year warranty for most types.

We duly dug into our savings and paid up. Much to his embarrassment the supplier then discovered he didn’t have any lithium batteries in stock so lent us a set of lead-acid gel batteries that were to be returned to the factory for some minor defect. Going back to the outlet today to get some further information on the new lithium battery one of the senior staff confided that ZETDC had told them that the power cuts were going to get MUCH worse. It was not just sales talk.

Zimbabwe most of its power from Lake Kariba on the Zambezi River on the country’s north-west boundary with Zambia. Both countries have been over-utilizing this water resource for some years now and the lake has fluctuated far more in recent years than in the past. Add to this the fluctuating rainfall and we are into dangerous territory. It should be said that a large proportion of the water that flows into the lake comes from northern Angola and central Zambia which has more reliable rainfall than Zimbabwe.

The dam was finished in 1960 and since then the turbines have been upgraded and the power stations on both banks of the Zambezi River have been expanded. It is the largest man made lake by volume on the planet and such is the mass of water that it is not unusual for the residents in the area to experience minor earthquakes. Such is the volume of water that can be released from the floodgates that it was feared the vibration could cause damage to the wall and it is very rare for more than 4 of the six floodgates to be opened at any one time. The plunge pool, where the spilling water falls, has undercut the foundations of the wall beyond permissible limits and has to be stabilized along with overdue maintenance on the floodgates. This means that the dam should not be allowed to spill until the work is complete so this last rainy season substantial water was allowed to flow from the dam before the flood waters come down from the upper Zambezi, usually in April. It seems that someone got the maths wrong, let out too much water before checking how much rain the catchment had received which was less than normal, and now there is barely enough head of pressure to keep the turbines going. Add to this the fact that one of the turbines at Hwange, the large thermal power plant in the west of the country, is out of commission and we have a power supply crisis. Alternative development projects, such as solar, have failed to come to fruition due to the dismal credit rating of the country.

This of course is not bad news for the sellers of alternative power systems. Whilst it is certainly cheaper to buy and fuel a generator than a solar system in the short term there is also the added complication that we have a fuel supply crisis. This has been ongoing for some months now and is driven by a lack of hard currency to pay for the imported fuel. Fuel queues are long and ubiquitous if one wants to pay in the local currency (now just referred to as ZWL). For those who have hard currency there is no queue and fuel is always available.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this is the death knell for the local currency and it may be, but the vast majority of Zimbabweans just do not have access to hard currency (usually the $US). The country is not earning much hard cash from limited exports and already the government has reneged on it’s promise to pay tobacco farmers at least a portion of their earnings (the majority of the crop is exported) in US dollars. Appeals to South Africa to sell us power is likely to be refused; they too are inflicting load shedding on their population due to a lack of power capacity. In their case, the local power authority – Eskom, is guilty of lack of development to meet increasing demand and corrupt dealings and over-paying senior management. Anyway, they would demand hard currency which we don’t have.

Downstream of Lake Kariba, in Mozambique, is Lake Cahora Bassa. It too is a large lake built to generate hydroelectric power which is mostly sold to South Africa. Not surprisingly it is full thanks to the outflow from Kariba and I’ve heard speculation that Mozambique will be approached to supply us power. Once again, we don’t have the money to buy it. It’s not looking good at all until at least April next year when the flood waters from the upper Zambezi reach Lake Kariba assuming the rains will be good in the catchment area. The government has promised not to cut power to the vital mining sector but its track record on promises is poor.

Meanwhile the local currency is under severe devaluation pressure. Just this last week the unofficial rate (what it can actually be bought for vs the “official” rate as quoted by the central bank) has fallen from 5 to the US dollar to 7. The official rate of 3.5:1 US dollar exists only on paper. Many outlets have stopped quoting goods in local prices and some, such as the accounting firm that holds my company documents, is demanding only US dollars. The ZETDC power utility is owed millions in unpaid accounts and our electricity price has remained at 14c (local) per unit for years despite the falling value of the currency. It has appealed to the government to raise tariffs but the last application was rejected – the government doesn’t want to foment unrest. They may have missed the bolting horse. Today I was shown and anonymously authored WhatsApp message announcing a mass stay-away. Details were sketchy, deliberately I think, but the message was clear; we’ve had enough.

Mass stay-aways in the past have had limited success but have clearly rattled the government which has responded with shutting down the internet and crushing any demonstrations with a very heavy hand. The WhatsApp circular advised people to remain peaceful and stock up on essential supplies. Sound advice for those who can afford to pay for them – a forever diminishing proportion of the population.





John the Baptist was a Zimbabwean

13 05 2019

The Herald in full sycophant form

It’s an old joke; apparently when asked if he was Christ, John the Baptist replied “I am not the one”. It’s also the favorite escape clause for Zimbabweans when faced with a potential penalty for some misdemeanor.

And so it was, two weeks ago, when I discovered that the electronic scale we use for weighing fertilizer and chemicals had been broken by someone overloading it – I got just that response from the person most likely to have been the culprit, “I am not the one”. I’m afraid to say I lost my temper. Then I realised that there were customers with small children in the nursery. I should have been embarrassed except I wasn’t though I did recognize that something needed to be done about my increasingly volatile temper – so now I’m on the “happy pills”.

When I saw this headline on The Herald (it’s a government-owned paper) I was struck by how the President, ED Mnangagwa, is effectively saying “I am the one, I am taking responsibility for what I say, trust me”. Well isn’t that interesting. His slogan for the election last year was “Zimbabwe is open for business”. Then in the troops hit the streets at the first sign of unrest and promptly shot dead 6 people in the back as they ran away. Footage was broadcast of a soldier taking aim and opening fire – clearly identifiable. At the inquest the army said it was very definitely not responsible; they were imposters who opened fire. Later ED Mnangagwa said he had ordered the troops onto the street i.e. he was the one responsible though initially he said he was NOT the one.

Back in the mid 1980s when the Ndebele people in the south-west of the country were being persecuted and massacred for supporting the then president Robert Mugabe’s nemesis, Joshua Nkomo, guess who was in charge of the Central Intelligence Organisation whilst North Korean trained 5th Brigade was committing the massacres? You guessed it, ED Mnangagwa. He hasn’t quite said he was not the one but he does claim that he didn’t know anything about it.

The Gukurahundi Massacres (around 20,000 victims) as they are known are back in the news and the President has said that justice must be seen to be done. Victims are being given proper burials and a commission has been set up to investigate what happened. I am sceptical that anyone will be held accountable, least of all ED or the then commander of the 5th Brigade, Perence Shiri, who happens to be the current Minister of Agriculture. So I think it should be quite likely that “the investors” in the article might also be a little cynical when the President “gives his word”. No I didn’t read the article. It wasn’t my newspaper – it was lying unopened in my local bank and I didn’t feel inclined to wade through what was bound to be a lot of sychophantic guff.

A friend of mine always used to buy The Herald; “you have to know your enemy” he’d admonish me when I asked him why but even the happy pills I’m taking don’t fortify my patience to that level. I don’t think they are meant to. But they might actually be calming my temper – I haven’t lost it since that day but then nobody has claimed they “are not the one”.





VAWZ and Gerry the cat

1 05 2019

Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ) is one of the more active animal welfare organizations based in Harare. They take animal welfare to the rural areas in the form of education, neutering and general clinics and like a lot of welfare organizations in Zimbabwe at the moment are having a hard time raising cash. It’s not surprising, the much vaunted slogan of the President, E D Mnangagwa, “Zimbabwe is open for business” has turned out to be empty of any meaning. He continues to squander hard cash on hiring a private jet for business whilst the economy tanks and the local currency dives in value. Hyper-inflation looms once again.

The Rescue & Release fund raiser was held at a local pub recently. Volunteers (with a bit of coercion) were face-painted and dressed up to represent various animals and “locked up” in a cage and were only allowed out once they’d raised there release/ransom fee of $10,000 (that’s local currency). Some of the more socially connected had raised the money even before being locked up. The evening went well with some $45,000 raised.

 

This last Sunday there was another VAWZ fundraiser in the form of the annual Scruffs Dog Show. Open to all and sundry it was a fun morning with lots of categories to suit all breeds and sizes of dogs. Sadly it was not as well supported as in the past though the sponsors certainly stepped up to the plate. Please support VAWZ if you can – they do such good work.





Easter break on the Turgwe River

23 04 2019

It’s not often that we both manage to get away together over Easter but this year we were lucky. Despite the kennels that we trust being full we managed to find someone to come and house-and-dogsit over the weekend. We have  been to the Humani Ranch camp on the Turgwe River before in December 2014 but this time we had downgraded from the rather expensive chalets to the glamping section with a group of friends from Mutare on the eastern border. It was comfortable enough.

It was a long 6 hour driver to the camp in the south-east of Zimbabwe but there had been recent rain and the countryside was greener than it had been a few months earlier. The recent cyclone Idai had expended most of it’s force before getting to this part of the countryside so a few bridges had experience damage but had already been fixed. The bush was thick and water plentiful so we didn’t see much game and that we did was very skittish. The Savé Valley Conservancy, of which the ranch is a part, is also a hunting area and most game did not wait to see if we were friendly or not. Still, it was good to get out of Harare for a while and enjoy the bush.

 





A productive morning

26 03 2019

Life and business are difficult in Zimbabwe at the moment – fuel queues, shortages, excessive prices – so it’s nice to be productive even if it’s purely to satisfy oneself. I got up early this morning to take photos on ART Farm where we run the dogs. I’d seen some potential photos yesterday when the mist was down and there was dew on the fence and the spider webs were glistening jewels of water drops. I was lucky. Not only was the mist there again but the fence had insects on it and because of the cold they were still! Movement is the enemy of macro photography so I was really lucky.





A punk spider and a cyclone called Idai

24 03 2019

This spider was tiny, about 5mm across, but what a radical punk shape!

The first golden orb spiders appeared at the beginning of this month – well that’s when I first noticed them. I have no idea what type of spider this is in the photo (it’s nothing like a golden orb spider). It was tiny and all I had was my cellphone so it had to do. I have not seen it again.

I am always pleased to see spiders as it usually means we’ve had decent rains and there are enough insects around to feed them, but this season has been distinctly unusual. It has been typically erratic as el Niño seasons are. It started well enough a week later than usual but February, instead of being the wettest month of the season, turned out dry. That was for Harare which has been better off than most of the country which has been very dry indeed. Then two weeks ago a low pressure system developed over Malawi and caused substantial flooding. It moved off into the Mozambique channel between Mozambique and Madagascar and became a full-blown cyclone and was named Idai. Moving off it brushed the big island, turned around and headed towards the Mozambican city of Beira.

Red areas indicate flooding

It made landfall last Thursday with winds of 170km/h and hammered the city (it was estimated that 90% of buildings sustained damage). American weather forecasters predicted rainfall of around 600mm which turned out to be an under-estimate.   Photographs estimate that 3000ha just inland from the city has been flooded. A friend sent me this audio recording from someone she knows in Mozambique in the town of Chimoio (WARNING: CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE) By Friday it had started to rain in the eastern Zimbabwe town of Chimanimani. Over the next 48 hrs they received 850mm of rain – pretty much their annual rainfall. Hillsides moved, houses were washed away and bridges disappeared under the onslaught. Power lines collapsed. The death toll is still climbing and people are unaccounted for. Further south the town of Chipinge was hit by high winds. It’s a horticulture area and damage to macadamia and avocado orchards has been extensive.

The response of ordinary Zimbabweans has been amazing. Collection centres have been set up in Harare and food, blankets, utensils, water and containers have been donated. Animal welfare organizations have also donated food and international organizations have helped out. The air force sent a helicopter which promptly broke down. Engineering companies donated equipment and expertise. Private individuals have used their helicopters, motorbike enthusiasts have gone to help find alternative routes into the cut-off areas. A photo has been circulating of an old woman who walked from her home the other side of Harare to donated cooking pots – she didn’t have enough money for the bus. For once people have been queuing to donate items instead of queuing to buy them.

Zimbabwe is heavily dependent on the port of Beira for imports and exports. It’s not clear what the damage to the port is but the ramifications are going to be extensive. It was reported that the pipeline that Zimbabwe uses to import most of its fuel had been damaged. However I know someone in the fuel business and he assures me that the pipeline is not damaged but the control station for the pumps in Beira has been devastated. Fortunately it’s run by an international company that is feverishly repairing it but the word is out that we might run out of fuel and the queues at the filling stations in Harare are long and chaotic.

Two days ago some youngsters who run a vermiculite exfoliating plant came to see me. We use the vermiculite at the nursery to dilute and stretch the supply of coir pith that we use as a medium for the seedlings. There are other locally produced media, one being composted pine bark, which is collected from sawmills where it is stripped off the logs before they are sawed so the saws don’t clog. The main source is in Chimanimani and is run by the Tobacco Research Board (TRB), mainly for use in the production of tobacco seedlings. The vermiculite company had been notified by the TRB, whom it also supplies with vermiculite, that its supplies had been badly damaged and that it would not be needing much vermiculite for this season’s crop which will be sown in June. This is very bad news for the tobacco farmers who use the pine bark/vermiculite medium to grow their seedlings (most seedlings are still grown in the traditional seedbed method). Quick to spot an opportunity they were wondering if the imported coir pith (called cocopeat by the trade) that I use would be suitable for growing tobacco and could it be blended with the expanded vermiculite that they produce. Yes, it can and I have used it successfully but we are fast running out of time. It is also cheaper to use coir pith imported from India than composted pine bark from South Africa (another option). We will see what transpires. Tobacco is a big foreign currency earner for Zimbabwe and thus is considered a strategic crop.

There was plenty of warning when and were the cyclone was going to hit. It was accurate information too. Weather forecasting has come a long wMozambique Major Hurricane Historyay since cyclone Eline hit Zimbabwe back in February 2000. Cyclones, as hurricanes are known in the southern hemisphere, rapidly lose power over the land as they need water as their power source (the water is sucked up as vapour, condenses releasing latent heat of condensation which draws up more water vapour) so they rarely get as far as Zimbabwe though they can cause significant rain as far inland as Harare. There was plenty of time for an evacuation to safer ground and when asked why the government did not effect this the reply was that the opposition MDC would have used the opportunity to accuse the army and police of using force and rape to make people move.

The opposition to the government used fake news to smear. A picture was posted of a sofa being offloaded from a helicopter claiming it was for the President to sit on when making the obligatory visit. It was an unrelated photo from Malawi (I did notice the registration on the helicopter was not from Zimbabwe, South Africa or Mozambique). The President did of course make a visit and all aerial activity had to stop whilst he was there.

The Department of Civil Protection (DCP) is the government arm tasked with disaster management. Its 2019 budget is $2.36 million (local dollars) which is less than the budget for state residence staff ($3 million). Its capital expenditure budget is all of $100,000 which might just buy a 4×4 pickup. There is a $3.4 m budget allocation for a loan scheme for chiefs to buy vehicles. Not surprising where this government’s priorities lie – politics is way ahead of looking after the people.

In a way it’s quite sad that the general public, who are only too well aware of the lack of interest for the welfare of the people, stepped up to the occasion is such spectacular fashion. It effectively lets the government off the hook and they will continue to spend money on themselves. That is not to say that they will miss an opportunity to gain political capital by handing out support to favoured sectors of the affected community. This tactic has been extensively employed in the past, especially when drought relief has been necessary, which in the grandest of ironies is going to be necessary again this year.

Here in Harare we’ve had about half the rainfall we’d expect in a normal year but elsewhere it’s been far less. There’s been widespread crop failure and the WFP estimates that about 5.3 million people are at risk this year. Droughts, erratic rains and cyclones are nothing new to us in southern Africa and can be dealt with by decent planning – something that is spectacularly absent in the current government. Just a week before cyclone Idai hit a video was widely shared on the social media of a pediatrician at a big local teaching hospital in tears because even the most basic medical supplies had run out – for want of syringes chemo-therapies had to be halted. Yet still the President, E.D. Mnangagwa, took himself and an entourage off to Dubai on business and then hired a jet to fly him back after the cyclone hit. At an estimated cost of US$200,000 it could have bought a lot of syringes. Bad as the Mugabe regime was it did not have this attitude to profligate spending. No, we don’t want the Mugabe regime back but good governance would be nice. Sadly that is a quality that is rare in African politics.

 

 

 

 

 





Cruise control and other stories

1 03 2019

Just plain hot

My business is in trouble. Commercial seedlings are no longer a specialized business thanks to the Tobacco Research Board. Some years ago they imported a large, new machine to mold expanded polystyrene into seedling trays. This was mainly for the tobacco industry that had to wean itself off methyl bromide that was traditionally used to sterilize seedbeds for growing tobacco seedlings.

The deadline was 2015 after which methyl bromide could only be used for very specific purposes under the Montreal Protocol. The idea behind the trays was to grow the tobacco seedlings in a medium such as composted pine bark and float the trays on shallow ponds of water with fertilizer mixed in. This is not new technology – I was involved in a project of this nature in 2000 – 2001 in Malawi. It works well and results in a much more even crop than the traditional seedbeds which can also be cleaned of weeds with another volatile chemical, ethylene dibromide or EDB.

Unfortunately most tobacco farmers found the lesser performing traditional seedbeds easier to cope with and the large machine was churning out seedling trays that had only a small market. So the TRB started promoting growing vegetable seedlings in the trays and supplied all the know-how to boot. Now there are numerous small nurseries around Harare and the market has been saturated. The quality is likely poor but the prices are low and that’s all that seems to count around Zimbabwe at the moment.

Grafted avocado seedlings are being sold at a premium in South Africa at the moment and there’s growing interest in Zimbabwe in producing anything for export. Both macadamias and avocados fit the bill and are very profitable so I had the idea last year of growing, grafting, and selling avocado seedlings which I can hopefully sell for real US dollars. Seed was duly sourced and sown and took rather a long time to germinate, likely due to the long and unseasonably cold spring (as low as 11°C in mid October which is just about unheard of). By Valentine’s Day some 2000 seedlings were big enough to graft so I decided to take the trip myself to an estate just south of the small agricultural town of Chipinge in the south-east of the country to collect the graft (scion) wood.

I left on the Saturday just after midday and got onto an unusually quiet road to the eastern city of Mutare, and engaged the cruise control. Since I bought the vehicle just over 2 years ago I have only ever used it for curiosity purposes – Zimbabwe traffic is just too erratic normally but since a fuel increase of 165% the roads have become much quieter. On the entire 2¾ hour trip I probably passed no more than 20 other vehicles. It was positively boring.

The fuel price increase was followed by street violence and protests, the army shot and beat people at random, the world tut-tutted, called for restraint and after a few weeks calm returned as the government knew it would. Now about a month later fuel is still short, the government has finally admitted that the local currency is not equal to a US dollar and has pegged it at 2.5 to the US dollar. It still cannot be bought in the banks and the street rate is 4:1.

Monday morning and the road to Chipinge from Mutare where I’d been staying with Gary and June was also very quiet. Gary told me it was largely due to the appalling state of the road further south and the weight restriction on Birchenough Bridge over the Save River. Once again it was cruise control time.

I haven’t been to Chipinge for perhaps 20 years so I was keen to see how much I remembered. The region is fertile, frost free and normally quite wet. Horticulture was certainly in evidence with large plantations of macadamias, avocados and bananas in evidence. It was all very dry and by the time I got to the estate just south of the town (though maybe it was small enough for village status) the drought was very evident.

By the time I’d got the cuttings packed in the cooler boxes it was after midday and hot. I drove back into the Save Valley and watched the temperature gauge climb. A few times it peaked at 40°C but not for long enough to get a photo.

I remember the heat of the Save Valley well from my days in the Rhodesian army in the bush war in the late 1970s. Patrols became centred around when one could take another drink and how long the water in the bottles would last. For a while we were based at a small irrigation scheme at a place called Nyanyadzi. There’s nothing to mark the spot now – it was only ever a temporary camp but on the other side of the road some 2km distant is a small group of hills that I remember vividly for the second most unpleasant event of my military stint (the most unpleasant was getting shot). I stopped, opened the driver’s window to the oven-like heat and took a photo.

There’s a story in those hills

We walked out one evening under the cover of darkness, two “sticks” of four troops, lightly armed with rifles and two machine guns and climbed onto the hill in the right of the picture. We passed the day quietly and then again, after supper of tinned rations, moved out when it was dark. Our stick descended into the valley behind where the other stick set up an ambush on a path and we climbed the hill behind to set up an observation post (O.P. in military terminology) overlooking an inhabited area. We each found somewhere we could sleep, unpacked our sleeping bags and sat around talking quietly.  Fireflies started to appear and after a short while there the most anyone had seen.

Suddenly there was a muffled “kerchooonk” explosion.

“What’s that?” I hissed to the dark shapes around me.

“That’s a mortar!” replied Dos who’d been a soldier in the Mozambican army and knew exactly what a mortar sounded like from his service in the civil war there.

“Take cover” hissed corporal Nico rather unnecessarily.

There was no cover to take – the surface was hard and stony but still we tried, scraping away the best we could, hearts pounding and counting the 20 seconds or so before the mortar bomb exploded. Mortar bombs are bad news on hard surfaces  where a half sphere of shrapnel is created (they are not very effective on soft surfaces where the explosion is directed upward) and very bad news if they hit a tree branch. A sphere of shrapnel is created and is particularly lethal. We were in dense woodland.

The mortar bomb exploded in the vicinity of where we’d spent the day. Another came out the tube, and another. We counted the seconds after each launch and flattened ourselves into the ground as best we could, desperately hoping that the bombs would fall elsewhere. Finally after it became evident that we were no longer on the top of that hill the enemy put down searching fire to draw a response from us. At one point there was a huge explosion as a recoil-less rifle was fired and then a prolonged burst of machine gun fire. Then all was quiet. Some half an hour later we heard voices as the enemy walked along a path not far from where we lay. The next day, obviously compromised, we scoured the bush for souvenirs of the attack (on top of the hill to the left in the photo) and then walked back to base. It seemed likely that the guerillas had assembled their heavy weaponry to attack our base but then chanced on an easier target – us.

I rolled up the window, put the air-conditioning on high and continued back to Mutare. To this day I can never watch a firefly without remembering that terrifying hour on a nondescript cluster of hills in the Save Valley.

Note: It is standard practice in counter insurgency (COIN) warfare never to sleep near where you’ve had your last meal for just the reason described in the story above – you may have been spotted. You always move out after last light and settle elsewhere, often in a place which you may have seen earlier which can be in an ambush position on your own trail in case you are being followed.