The power is on (for the moment)

7 09 2019

As I write this we actually have mains supply power. According to our neighbourhood WhatsApp group it’s because a dignitary is attending a function at a local sports club. By dignitary I mean someone with political clout. That way they can pretend that all’s well in the power supply situation when the reality is 18 hour power cuts every day. We are in this mess for several reasons, the main one being we have possibly the world’s cheapest power at US3c a unit (kWh). Until very recently it was 1c.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the days when we were using real US$ and nothing else it was around 10-14c a unit and power was plentiful. We could import what power we needed from Mozambique and South Africa and even if the rest of the economy was a mess, which it was and still is, power was there if you needed to use it. Then in 2016 the government decided to introduce another currency called the “Bond dollar” which locals quickly nicknamed the “bollar” or “zollar”. The government insisted it was equivalent to a US dollar and was backed by a bond from the Egyptian Afreximbank and it was there to reduce the problem of small change. It was a lie. There was no bond, those who could withdrew their real dollars from the bank and those who couldn’t watched as the value of their accounts was whittled away by the informal market exchange rate. Eventually the government admitted that the bollar was not equivalent to a US dollar and pegged it at 2:1. The informal market ignored it and the rate soared to 12:1  before the government made it illegal to trade within the country in anything but bollars which were now called new Zimbabwe dollars (though we have yet to see any actual notes). The official exchange rate has now risen to around 14:1 which is why our electricity is ridiculously cheap. We were informed earlier this year that our bank accounts that had been in US dollars were now in Zimbabwe dollars – and so was our real money stolen.

We now owe US$73 million to the power utilities in Mozambique and South Africa with no real hope of paying it back and getting ourselves reconnected (not surprisingly they refuse to continue to export power to us). We need to import power because local thermal generators have been badly neglected because they have not been charging enough for the power (the government regulates power and fuel charges). This means that maintenance has not been done and our main source of hydro power, Lake Kariba, has been over-utilised beyond its design limitations. To compound the mess last season there was poor rains in the main catchment area in north-western Zambia and Angola.

The effect of lack of maintenance cannot be over-estimated. Apart from effeciency loss in old switch gear and old machinery (turbines), transmission efficiency is also affected. Insulators get covered in dust, rain turns the dust to mud which then causes shorts to the supporting structure which heats and cracks the insulator. Local losses are around 12% (I’m told the internationally accepted level is 7%).

The local power utility, ZESA, has embarked on a programme of power cuts or load shedding as it’s known locally. Alternative energy suppliers’ businesses are booming. The Reserve Bank estimates that the diesel fuel import bill has jumped 20% since the power cuts started as people and businesses buy it for their generators – money that could have been put into importing power in the first place.

It doesn’t take a huge imagination to realize what the consequences of these draconian power cuts are going to be. Some of the bigger mines import their own power directly from South Africa but the smaller ones, which apparently are given priority, have to make do. Farmers irrigate their crops in the dead of night when the power comes on, usually between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. but this is often not long enough for a full cycle and I’ve heard of farmers abandoning their winter wheat crops which have demanding irrigation requirements. Tobacco seed sales were down 30% in April but this was as much to do with the government reneging on it’s promise to pay a proportion of the sales in hard currency as a lack of power. The early tobacco crop (tobacco is a major foreign currency earner) does require irrigating and supplementary power sources for the irrigation will likely make an expensive to produce crop excessively so.

Cell phone connectivity is now noticeably reduced as service providers have to rely more on backup power sources – usually diesel generators and the cost of airtime has gone up considerably.

We recently had six days with no power at all – just us and a neighbour across the street. Marianne went into the local ZESA offices to see whom she could get to come and have a look. A technician duly arrived and walked around the property then said he’d go and have a look at the sub-station (which supplies the suburb) and nothing happened. The next day the neighbour tried with no success. By now we were having to throw away food as our solar system couldn’t cope with running the fridge, deep freezes and other appliances and borehole pump 24 hours a day. So I went along to the offices, fully prepared to have to pay a bribe/sweetener to get something done.

I asked for the local manager with whom Marianne had spoken and introduced myself by commenting that we had more in common than he realised – we are both going bald. He laughed and I knew we were off to a good start. After explaining the problem I asked him what the future of our electricity supply was. Without saying anything he pointed to the ubiquitous portrait of the President, E D Mnangagwa, that seems obligatory in government offices. I replied “Please don’t point to that picture and tell me Zimbabwe is open for business”. The occupants of the office found it hugely funny. The slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business” was widely used by ED, as the President is known, in his election campaign.

“Are you and engineer?” I asked the manager.

“I am” he responded.

“So”, I asked him, “what happens when the water level in Kariba gets too low to be used for power?”.

“We turn it off” he replied.

“You mean the whole country?”.

“The whole country” he confirmed.

“Unless we can find some money to import some power. But that’s unlikely to happen so long as we have the world’s cheapest electricity?” I responded.

He nodded to E D’s photo without commenting.

That afternoon our power supply was restored and I hadn’t needed to part with any money – sometimes engagement is all it takes.

I don’t expect that the whole country will be turned off anytime soon. Certain areas in Harare, where we live, seem to be exempt. The grids surrounding the main hospitals and the President’s residence don’t get power cuts. A friend who lives close to the state controlled broadcaster, ZBC, never gets power cuts. Another friend who lives in a rural part of Zimbabwe in the east is on the same line as a senior ZESA executive never gets cuts either. That said I’ve told Marianne that we need to expect ever more draconian cuts – we don’t live near anyone or anything of political consequence.

Some four years ago I was living on a farm close to where I work. It was for me the perfect existence – close enough to town to be convenient but far enough away to benefit from the peaceful countryside. Whenever there was a thunderstorm the power went off and could take several days to get it fixed. I got fed up and bought a small solar system to keep the fridge and deep freeze running. I’ve always been a bit of a geek and liked the idea of a bit of independence from the grid and yes, I got a bit of a fuzzy warm feeling that I was doing something good for the environment.

The system worked well and it was upgraded by two panels when we moved into town. Then earlier this year as the load shedding was introduced the original lead-acid batteries had run their life and needed to be changed. It was evident that the power cuts were only going to get worse so we decided on another upgrade. Foolishly we bought locally manufactured batteries which only lasted 3 months but at least we could pay for them in local currency. The company that sold them to us did admit there was a problem and replaced them but we’d decided to go with an initially more expensive but much longer lasting lithium battery. Yet more photovoltaic panels were added with our closely guarded US dollars and now we have a nearly-off-the-grid system. It’s OK if we get a few hours of mains every night to charge the battery but if it gets to the stage where we’re completely cut off (no important neighbours to please) we are going to have to think of upgrading yet again. It will be money that could have been spent on a couple of really good holidays.

Panels are put onto the structure. Whilst I did most of the welding I had to get a specialist welder in to do the final work

The area where my nursery is has been relatively unaffected by power cuts. The research farm where I used to live is on the same grid and likes to claim some responsibility. I think it’s mostly due to the military barracks just down the road – can’t annoy those that keep the government in power now can we? Whichever it is it’s unlikely the situation will last so just before the recent slide in the local currency I invested in a solar powered borehole system whilst I had the money. Fortunately I have a young friend who has a qualification in solar systems and he helped me put it in by doing the design work whilst I did most of the welding of the structure. We did have to wait a month to get the electrics hooked up as the electrician was simply too busy doing other installations. In a rare moment of common sense the government has removed duty from solar panels and other associated equipment so those who can afford it are scrambling to install systems.

So far our system works fine, weather permitting. It cannot pump all the water we need so we are still reliant on getting at least some power to keep the water tank full and if the power goes off during the day, as it sometimes does,

there is a generator but it can go through 25 litres of diesel a day which of course is in short supply.

The price of power has recently gone up by up to 300% but it is still ridiculously cheap especially since the exchange rate with the US dollar has started to run again. There is no obvious way out of the mess.

The final wiring gets done. The system allowed for the original pump and motor to be used so required specialist knowledge





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.





The drought of ’92

10 12 2015
Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Zimbabweans have a curious attitude to the rainy season; they almost think it’s a right and are somewhat puzzled or even hurt when I say no, I don’t think the rains are going to come this year. Of course we will get some rain but it’s almost certain there will be a drought.

In 1992 we had a drought. At the time I was working in Penhalonga in the high rainfall eastern area of Zimbabwe. I was doing freelance programming; there was plenty of work but it did not pay well as people were not convinced of the value of it so I left and in 1995 (another drought year) started an agricultural job near Harare.

The photo above was taken north of Mutare in a high rainfall area called Watsomba. I don’t recall the actual date but you can see there is hardly a blade of grass to  be seen. In those days Zimbabwe still had a vibrant agricultural sector and despite the ravages of the drought nobody went hungry because the commercial farmers (mostly white) knew how to use their resources well and besides, drought is endemic to southern Africa so there was plenty of stored water to irrigate crops.

This year a drought is likely but there’s a major difference; there are very few capable farmers left. Most were driven off their land by the Mugabe government in 2000 – 2002. Many of the former commercial farms lie derelict and ironically, the dams (reservoirs) that ensured plentiful crops and established Zimbabwe as a regional food exporter are still mostly full. There are two reasons for this – there are few farmers to use the water and those who can prefer to pump the water for more profitable crops than the staple maize. Pumping is also expensive these days as most of the country is enduring long power cuts so diesel pumps have to be used. One of my customers told me that he gets up at midnight, when the power comes on, to irrigate his tomatoes. “You can get quite a lot of irrigation done in four hours before they turn it off again but the labour force is not very keen” he added.

The electricity situation is only going to get worse. Lake Kariba, which normally supplies most of the country’s hydro power is critically low so the turbines are running below capacity. The lake is low due to poor rains in the catchment area of central west Zambia and eastern Angola and this inflow only occurs around April. The Zambians have also over developed the north bank power station and the lake simply cannot keep up. Zimbabwe also has a large thermal power station at Hwange in the west of the country but generating capacity is down due to lack of maintenance and capital development (the government is broke) and despite being right on top of a large very high quality coal deposit they just can’t seem to get it together.

Money was borrowed from Namibia to fund electricity development in Zimbabwe but now the local utility, ZESA, has taken out another loan and we have to export more power to Namibia to pay it back.

The internet did not exist in Zimbabwe in 1992 so there was not a lot of opportunity to research the causes of drought. Now the current el Niño is well covered both locally and worldwide. Looking back at the history, this year’s temperature rise that defines the phenomenon looks to be very similar to that of 1992 (1995 was not quite as strong though we were saved in this part of the country by cyclone Bonita that savaged the eastern districts) but perhaps a bit stronger. That’s not good news at all.

I don’t have a photo of the same area taken in 1993 but I do recall that the area recovered very well. That’s cold comfort right now (it’s blazing hot as I write this with temperatures in the mid 30 degrees and few clouds to be seen) as we still have to get through another 12 months before we can hope for a normal season.

In the meantime I am installing a solar powered system capable of running all electrics in the house bar the water heaters (it’s not my house otherwise I’d install solar water heaters too).  I actually am connected to a reasonably reliable grid due to the proximity of a military baracks but I just like the idea of being independent and, yes, I’m a bit of a geek too.





Getting more for less (or preferably nothing at all)

22 10 2015

The workers’ committee representing my labour force requested a meeting yesterday. They were asking for a wage increase. That most of Zimbabwe is unemployed swayed them not a bit. Neither did the fact that most prices are not going up and rents are, in some cases, going down. The pharmacist where I most frequently get scripts has taken a 20% reduction in salary and is struggling to pay her children’s school fees. That I would have to increase prices to offset the wage increase and probably drive customers elsewhere also failed to move them. So in the end I just said no, it was not going to happen (I already pay substantially more than I am required to by law). They were more than a little bemused but at least they are actually working for a living unlike a lot of the “haves” in our society.

Currently there is a bit of a fuss in the press over a Zimbabwe born doctor who works in the UK. Dr Sylvester Nyatsuro is after a farm owned by a white farmer in the Centenary area in the north of Zimbabwe. Dr Nyatsuro is by all accounts successful in the UK, running a weight loss clinic in Nottingham – he does not need a farm in Zimbabwe. Even his UK lawyers seem to think he is entitled to grab the farm under Zimbabwe law. Note that he is not going to pay for it despite the fact that it is heavily cropped so I can only think he must be well connected. And what will happen to the farm in the hands of a doctor who probably knows little about farming? Well, he could if he is sensible employ someone who does know about farming but more likely it will suffer the fate of the farm just down the road from my business.

The farm to which I’m referring was once was highly productive. Some 3 years ago the owner was kicked off. Very little happens there now. There have been 2 disastrous crops of potatoes this year and last year there was an extraordinarily bad crop of seed maize that looked like it had been grown almost entirely without fertilizer. There is ample water supply to farm most of the land through the dry winter and ironically, unlike a lot of Zimbabwe, it has reasonably reliable power to pump the water. It is not clear whom is actually in charge of the land but the manager is reasonably capable so I can only think the “owner” is bleeding it dry.

Earlier this month, hot on the heels of Cecil the Lion saga, a magnificent bull elephant was shot by a trophy hunter near the Ghona-re-Zhou game reserve in the south east of Zimbabwe. It was a completely legal hunt but already the social media knives are out having so successfully lynched the American dentist who shot Cecil the Lion and has been exonerated of committing a crime (the professional hunter who led the hunt may or may not have something to answer for).

The German hunter who apparently shot the elephant paid a reported $60,000 for the right to shoot an elephant. That’s a lot of money for most people and in Zimbabwe professional hunting does bring in much needed cash and supports a lot of people. The hunting fraternity also argue that the controlled hunting areas would become a free-for-all poaching areas if hunting were to stop i.e. they are conservationists too. Whilst a lot of people find trophy hunting repugnant it would be difficult to argue that a poached animal that often dies in agony over several days has a cleaner death than one shot (elephant poachers have taken to using tranquilizer guns on their prey because they are silent – the tusks are then hacked off whilst the animal is still conscious) in a professional hunt. In Zimbabwe we don’t have the luxury of being able to leave land idle – it must all earn its keep. Sadly, allocating hunting areas to photo tourism won’t work either. Our already underfunded national parks are themselves being poached and in many cases the general public is helping to keep them going. Friends of Hwange are active in providing water to the animals in the country’s premier national park – a task that in normal countries would fall to the government. This government is always pleading poverty and prefers to let well-wishers help out whilst they spend supposedly non-existent funds on military vehicles.

Just yesterday I received an email from some local microlight pilots who have started a trust to provide aircraft free of cost to assist with anti-poaching patrols in the National Parks. The National Parks people are reportedly delighted as I guess so too are the government.

Now that most parts of the country are suffering massive power cuts of up to 18 hours, those of us who can are looking to “make a plan”. Whilst I am not in an area too badly affected I am not sitting idle and am looking at the solar option. A diesel generator would be cheaper but I am not convinced that diesel will always be available. Sunlight will be. So I guess I am as guilty as anyone of not standing up to the corruption, mismanagement and poor governance that blights this special country. But at least I am working for my money.