By Jeffrey Moyo
MWENEZI, Zimbabwe (IDN) – Deep in Vesera village in Mwenezi district in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo Province, 34-year-old Albert Chindiro emerges from his pole and dagga thatched hut holding a medium size solar panel which he positions on the roof to recharge solar batteries for lighting when night falls.
The house of neighbour Alphios Mhike is linked to power lines from the state energy utility, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), but has long been disconnected from the after Mhike failed to keep up payments for prepaid electricity supplies. He too has now turned to solar energy.
For many countryside residents in Zimbabwe, the move to embrace solar energy comes at a time when the United Nations is encouraging countries the world over to achieve its Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
Early this year, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) proposed a 49 percent electricity tariff hike from the current average of US 0.0986 dollars per kilowatt hour to about US 0.14, saying this was part of efforts to enable ZESA to raise more revenue for electricity generation, but the bid to raise electricity tariffs was blocked by the government.
However, the electricity crisis for Zimbabweans had already started in 2013, when the tariff had been upped by 0.3 percent to the current level.
Last year, the Sustainable African Energy Consortium (SAEC) revealed that Zimbabwe’s slightly more than three million households were connected to electricity from the state power utility, but many rural dwellers like Mhike were struggling to stay connected.
“Now I have found the way to evade the challenges of using electricity from ZESA, and for me solar has become the way to go because with it even my refrigerator here in the village runs while I now have domestic lighting every day,” Mhike told IDN.
According to the World Bank, access to electricity in Southern Africa is around 28 percent – below the continental average of 31 percent.
But for Zimbabwe, it is a different story all together, with the country joining global efforts to eliminate energy poverty by 2030 under the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative.
With people struggling to remain dependent on electricity from state supply, solar energy is rapidly becoming a life-changer among Zimbabwe’s poor rural villagers like Chindiro, who lives in a single thatched hut with his wife and two-year old daughter.
“I bought this solar panel in South Africa where I often go to do some menial jobs to support my family and this panel has really transformed our lives because we no longer have to use firewood for lighting. We are now as good as people living in the city although we live in our thatched hut,” Chindiro told IDN.
According to ZERA, this Southern African nation currently has 1.2 million people using solar energy, with 83 percent of these in remote areas.
By 2018, Zimbabwe hopes to increase renewable energy capacity by 300 MW, this at a time when most countries in the region have developed solar markets.
In September 2015, ZERA licensed five solar power projects valued at 250 million dollars to produce 160 megawatts of electricity.
In its 2016 national budget, the Zimbabwean government has allocated 28.3 million dollars towards grid extension, and solar and biogas projects as it looks for alternatives in power generation, with part of the drive including the development of 300MW of solar photovoltaic energy through the state-owned power generation body, the Zimbabwe Power Company.
ZERA reports that most of the villagers using solar energy here live closer to the country’s border with South Africa while others live around Plumtree, bordering Zimbabwe and Botswana where they easily cross over to buy solar panels for energy in their homes.
Even in towns and cities, many residents have also turned to solar energy to avoid rising electricity costs.
Environmentalists say the way rural Zimbabweans have started embracing clean energy is beneficial for the environment.
“In the past, most rural dwellers used to depend heavily on wood fuel even for their lighting, but with many people now gradually embracing the use of solar energy, our forests are gradually being saved,” Evans Madhongi, an independent environmental expert based in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, told IDN.
Zimbabwe generates about 1 300MW of electricity against a total demand of 2 200MW, and thus imports energy from neighbouring countries like South Africa (300MW) and Mozambique (40MW).
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is one the African countries benefiting from renewable energy technology through a South-South cooperation on clean energy programme sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
The country is also a beneficiary of the UN’s Perez-Guerrero Trust Fund (PGTF), which promotes South-South cooperation in renewable energy globally.
The PGTF, which is managed by the UN Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC), was established by the UN General Assembly in 1983 to support economic and technical cooperation activities among developing countries. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 August 2016]
Photo: Solar geysers Credit: Jefffrey Moyo