Electricity outages have escalated in Zimbabwe, with the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) citing vandalism of its infrastructure, but experts say power generation is being crippled by a lack of investment in renewable energy.

In recent days, power outages have worsened, even before last week’s announcement that the country’s Kariba power station was shutting down because of low dam levels. Loadshedding has seen some parts of the country experiencing 24-hour blackouts, disrupting all economic activity, from heavy industrial sites and central business districts to backyard workshops. Naboth Zondo, who earns a living at his home as a welder, knows this painfully well. If there is no electricity, he does not eat.

“It’s as simple as that,” he says.

“What do you do when electricity is restored at one o’clock in the morning and disappears before the sun comes up?”

He is not alone. Families still able to stock their fridges complain about food spoiling, worsened by the power utility no longer publishing a fixed schedule of electricity cuts.

“You cannot plan anything. You watch as food rots. Why bother to complain, and to whom?” asks Wellington Tshuma, as butcheries race to save their businesses. In Bulawayo’s Kelvin North, light industries, touted by the Small Enterprises Ministry as the answer to the country’s high unemployment levels where skilled and unskilled artisans can be found working as welders and motor mechanics, daily power outages have meant lost incomes. During electricity blackouts, Ntando Nleya can be found whiling away the boredom playing checkers with his colleagues.

“We have to come here every day even if we know there is no guarantee of electricity. It is better than staying at home and still doing nothing,” he says.

Backyard electricity consumers are considered small fry as energyguzzling sectors such as mining and agriculture have taken a huge knock because of power uncertainty. Early this year, the mining and farming sectors pleaded with the government to exempt them from load-shedding, citing loss of working hours and revenue. A 2019 African Development Bank (AfDB) report said electricity shortages in Zimbabwe remained one of the major structural constraints facing the mining sector, despite its potential to change the country’s economic fortunes.

“There is undeniable evidence that the development of reliable, adequate, low-priced power can contribute significantly to the efficient and effective functioning of the Zimbabwe economy and the maintenance of Zimbabweans’ standard of living,” the AfDB report said, at a time when numerous studies and reports noted that the country’s standard of living has dropped.

Zesa, a state-owned enterprise, has routinely blamed extended power blackouts on the vandalism of its infrastructure by thieves who steal copper cables and drain transformer oil.

But the Zambezi River Authority, custodians of the source of hydroelectric generating Kariba Dam, this week announced that power production was being suspended because of low water levels at the dam. The country’s energy ambitions have not been spared by the climate crisis, but analysts say investing in renewable energy could offer relief. The Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce and the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries have complained about the effect of electricity cuts on production, noting that despite years of lobbying the government to decisively deal with the power crisis, nothing had been done. The government has touted solar power as the answer to the country’s power deficit, but investment in the capital-intensive sector has been dogged by allegedly corrupt awarding of tenders.

In 2015, amid former President Robert Mugabe’s ostensible crackdown on dubious tender-awarding processes, a multimillion-dollar solar plant was earmarked for construction in Gwanda, a small town in the country’s southwest, but years later, nothing has happened, and the winning contractor has been accused of converting the money to finance a lavish lifestyle. Under its renewable energy policy, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (Zera) has set out ambitious energyproduction targets of up to 1 100 megawatts of renewable energy by 2025. Zera said this will represent 16,5% of the country’s total energy production, and that is expected to increase to 26,5% by 2030. By Zera’s projections, the country will have excess electricity production capacity by 2030, which is President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s timeline to have a middle-class economy.

The power station at Kariba Dam has shut down because of low water levels. (Guillem Sartorio/AFP)

Amid the country’s ongoing economic hardships and stalled foreign direct investment in the energy sector, critics have expressed doubt that those targets will be realised. At peak, Zimbabwe’s electricity demand stands at 1700 megawatts but the country has for years struggled to hit the 1000 MW mark owing to old infrastructure and lack of investment in the sector. While the country has clinched “mega deals” with countries such as Belarus, Russia and China for renewable energy production, the ongoing energy crisis has cast doubt on the implementation of these projects.

“Renewable energy production is expensive, and the government should have concentrated on refurbishing existing infrastructure as we suggested years ago,” said Elias Mudzuri, a former Energy Minister during the country’s government of national unity.

“One wonders if the current Energy Minister is competent enough to deal with the energy crisis. It is not about whether the government has money or no money for long-term sustainable energy projects. What is important is having a feasible energy blueprint, then everything else will follow,” he said.

Meanwhile, institutions such as hospitals have not been spared the power cuts, highlighting the extent of the crisis. At one time, expecting mothers were being asked to bring candles into delivery rooms, in a country where skilled health personnel are quitting in droves citing poor working conditions. For now, as the country fumbles in the dark, there is little to show that the energy crisis will be solved anytime soon, with South Africa’s Eskom being pressured by local lobbyists to cut off power to Zimbabwe. In 2019, Zesa reported that Zimbabwe was getting 400 MW from Eskom, while also importing power from Zambia, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the dark: A blackout in Chitungwiza, 25 km from Harare. Loadshedding is damaging to everyone from households to businesses. (Mary Turner/Getty Images)

The country has routinely been threatened with disconnection for failing to pay for the electricity, and last week, Energy Minister Soda Zhemu told journalists that the government did not have the money to import electricity. Zimbabwe, alongside other countries in the region, has, for years, imported electricity from South Africa, but with the continent’s largest economy facing its own energy crisis marked by rolling electricity blackouts, Zimbabwe could find itself in a cold, dark place for much longer. Critics have been harsh on how the government has dealt with the energy crisis, and senior Zesa officials have been accused of corruption and bad corporate governance.

“The failure to address the recurrent problem of power outages, and given the levels of official corruption and lack of corporate conscience by state enterprises and parastatals, there is little doubt that the country is suffering from a moral crisis,” said Gorden Moyo, who served as Minister of State Enterprises and Parastatals under the late Morgan Tsvangirai’s tenure as Prime Minister.