The Chiguma family of Chitungwiza has experienced first-hand the nightmares of an urban life without electricity as the country’s sole power utility, Zesa Holdings, fails to provide adequate power owing to a number of reasons, dismissed by many consumers as mere excuses.
Mercy Chiguma (53), a mother of four, knows how tough it is to ensure that the detrimental effects of extensive power cuts are minimal on her family.
She has had to get firewood for cooking every day or optionally, paraffin, which costs $1 for a 750ml bottle or $1,50 a litre.
For this woman of modest means, this is expensive. Her husband earns a paltry $230 monthly.
Since August last year, Chiguma has been forking out at least $60 a month to settle her monthly electricity bills, desperate to offset a $783 cumulative debt dating back to 2008.
On average, some Zengeza residents go without electricity for as much as 15 hours a day as part of Zesa’s load-shedding scheme, introduced a few years back following the power utility’s failure to provide adequate electricity.
“I thought load-shedding was normally between three or four hours a day, but sometimes we spend as much as 18 hours a day without electricity,” says Chiguma.
The country requires at least 2 000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, but is only able to produce around 1 100MW from both the Hwange and Kariba power plants.
Close to 500MW are being imported from neighbouring countries like Mozambique and Zambia.
According to Lovemore Mukono, the chief executive of Mukonitronics (Pvt) Ltd, electricity is no longer “a natural phenomenon” as should be the case.
“Load-shedding is the albatross around their necks that mining, domestic, commercial and industrial stakeholders have had to contend with at great cost to productivity, appliance safety and competitiveness on both the local and export markets,” he says.
He says it is important for individual users to be more conservative in using electricity.
“Indeed every consumer of electricity can play a major part in reducing electricity consumption and with it, the need to import power, thus forcing the utility to resort to load-shedding. In domestic households stoves, incandescent lamps and geysers are the largest consumers of power,” he says.
Although an electric lamp rated at 40–100 watts may not appear to be much on its own, said Mukono in a brief to the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce late last year, when looked at on a greater scale, if those lamps are replaced with energy savers, the country would stand to save over 200MW of power.
Mukono says if consumers install control devices to switch off their geysers when not in use, the country would save a further 250MW.
“These two interventions alone would free enough power, equivalent to the entire Hwange Power Station Units 1-4 with a combined 480MW installed capacity,” he adds.
Six million energy savers equivalent to 200MW could replace energy-inefficient incandescent lamps within a period of six months at a cost of $15-$20 million. But a new 200MW power station would need five to seven years to build at a cost of $300-$450 million, an investment that Zimbabwe is currently ill-equipped to finance, he says.
Zesa has become adept at giving excuses for failing to deliver a service: the country is not generating enough power; antiquated machinery; consumers are not honouring debts and rampant theft of equipment.
Recently, the power utility purchased new electricity billing equipment worth $2,5 million which will clear the way for the introduction of prepaid meters later this year. Zesa spokesperson Fullard Gwasira recently said the system will be commissioned next month.
“Its benefits are such that customers will witness a greatly improved billing system. It will correct all the anomalies which were being witnessed by customers on the old system,” he said.
“The system will remove the high figures which sometimes cropped up on the old system.”
He said the prepaid meters will be in place before the end of this year and will enable customers to manage their own electricity consumption.
Domestic electricity consumers like Chiguma have questioned Zesa’s billing system, which is based on estimated power consumption, arguing they were being forced to pay for electricity they never used given the frequent load-shedding.
Under the system, customers pay for the power they intend to use over a given period. In most cases, the system works through vouchers.
Customers purchase a credit card with a code that they feed into the meters and get credit units commensurate with the fed value.
Failure to buy credit will result in one being automatically disconnected. This is vastly different from the traditional billing system where customers pay after consumption.
Gwasira said the implementation of the project was imminent and the power company has targeted more than 500 000 domestic consumers countrywide.
Many Zesa customers have, since the dollarisation of the economy, been burdened with excessive bills running into thousands of dollars.