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Seke’s power curse: As two plants turn into white elephants

Local News
File pic: Eight years after the project came to life, Zimbabwe is still reeling under massive load shedding and the dream of the Dema Diesel Plant

A RUSTED billboard protrudes from the overgrown vegetation to tell a story of broken promises.

With the paint peeling off the giant billboard inscribed Dema Diesel Plant, it is easy for one to interpret the fate of this once upon a time celebrated project.

The billboard and what lies beyond it tell the sad tale of one of Zimbabwe’s failed projects that gobbled an estimated US$350 million all in the name of improving electricity supply in the country.

Eight years after the project came to life, Zimbabwe is still reeling under massive load shedding and the dream of the Dema Diesel Plant, in Mashonaland East, to ease the country’s power challenges has since died with the project.

About 20 kilometres south of the now defunct Dema Diesel Plant site lies yet another power project, the Harava Solar Park, that appears to have caught on the Dema Power Plant project curse. Its state is worse, having so far failed to even get off the ground.

NewsDay’s first port of call to unravel Seke’s apparent power curse was the Dema Diesel Plant located in Madamombe Village, where an estimated 228 diesel powered generators were supposed to feed 200 megawatts (MW) into the national grid.

The project, however, faltered after just one and a half years.

“It was a good project. We were shocked to see containers coming to ferry some of the machinery some few years ago. We knew that was the end of it,” said Prosper Moyo (44), from Madamombe Village.

Visiting the site last week, NewsDay was welcomed by tall grass covering much of the property.

A healthy maize crop is flourishing inside the fence, evident that some enterprising individual was capitalising on the vast available land.

It was hard to imagine that the place was once a hive of activity with heavy duty generators puffing plumes of smoke into the air as they laboured to pump power into the national grid

The roaring sound of the generators has since been replaced by the whistling sound of pylon wires as they sway in the wind.

The only development in the area are the beautiful houses near the power plant, thanks to illegal parcelling out of land by village heads and politicians.

“I was allocated a residential stand in 2018. I do not know anything about the plant you are talking about. I have seen the billboard, yes, but not the plant,” said a man who identified himself as Sibanda.

Zimbabwe business mogul Kudakwashe Tagwirei’s Sakunda Holdings was in 2015 awarded a contract to install the 200MW plant in Seke, despite not having participated in any tender for the project.

According to a 2019 audit report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the order to award Sakunda Holdings the contract outside the tender process came from the Office of the President and Cabinet of the then late former President Robert Mugabe. 

The project faltered citing diesel shortages, despite Sakunda having been waived to import duty free fuel.

Instead, reports say the imported fuel was being directed to service stations instead of the generators.

Sakunda had also contracted a partner, Aggreko which provided technical expertise and supplied equipment.

The deal would see Zesa Holdings paying for power generation to the company.

“The deal wasn’t sustainable at all, it was expensive. It is no longer a secret that the project was an over ambitious one and that it is dead and buried,” said a Zesa official who declined to be named.

Efforts to get a comment from Zesa spokesperson George Manyaya were fruitless.

Sakunda Holdings then tried to sell the project to government, but in vain.

The company had demanded at least US$66 million to hand over the plant to the State.

In 2021 Zesa board chairperson Sydney Gata, said the power utility refused to purchase the plant because the project was a “calamity and a capital offence”.

Zesa refused to bow down to Sakunda’s demand of US$0,36 per kilowatt with the former offering just US$0,11 per kw per power generated at Dema.

The late President Mugabe’s son-in-law Derick Chikore was also involved in the deal as a business partner to Sakunda Holdings.

At Harava Solar Park project at Bwoni Village under Chief Seke, the project is expected to feed 20MW into the national grid.

For years, the US$25m project has been making headlines, with politicians and government officials taking turns to tour it.

When NewsDay visited the project last week, it was deserted, with sheep and goats milling inside the fenced property whose gate was locked.

A source close to the project said progress has been stalled following squabbles between some Chinese nationals and the local community led by Chief Seke who are part of the shareholders.

“There are some squabbles between the locals and some Chinese investors on the whole deal. This has stalled the progress of the project. The issue is on the operations,” said the source.

Seke legislator Munyaradzi Kashambe said: “We are all waiting for the solar park to become functional. The locals are going to benefit the most in terms of power and job creation.”

Ministers who have toured Harava Solar Project include Zhemu Soda (Energy), Joram Gumbo (Implementation) and Applonia Munzverengwi (resident minister).

With the country grappling under its worst ever electricity crisis, the story of Seke district’s “powerless” power plants leaves many agitated as potential power projects turn into white elephants.

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