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zimbabwe electricity drought
With the increase in electricity prices, many Zimbabweans turned to solar energy to meet their needs.

“No electricity for cooking”: Droughts in Zimbabwe cut the lights in poor households

Nothando Siziba and her neighbors have resorted to using gas or firewood for cooking, a carbon intensive energy source. Like her, many people in poverty in the country have faced restrictions to their energy consumption after a spike in electricity tariffs.

After electricity prices went up, Siziba —a neighbor of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare— had to cut electricity use at her home. “We don’t use electricity for cooking. We only use electricity for lights and electrical appliances such as fridges,” said Siziba.

Since 2019, droughts in this Southern African country have significantly reduced hydropower generation. According to the Zimbabwe Power Company, water levels in Zimbabwe’s main lake, Kariba, have dropped to below 30% of average, seriously affecting power generation in the country. 

Because of this, electricity tariffs have skyrocketed in the last years, passing from 162 Zimbabwean dollars in 2018 to 225 Zimbabwean dollars in 2021. The ZESA’s power distribution subsidiary, hiked electricity tariffs by 30%, from the past year arguing that the low tariffs were inhibiting its efforts to operate efficiently. This affected mainly lower income households, who were already struggling to pay the light bill before the price hike.

Current restrictions also limit household consumption of electricity to not more than 200kW per month. In comparison, an average US household consumes around 877 kWh per month.

Zimbabwe has managed to keep the lights on since March after businesses were either shut or cut production after a government imposed lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the increase hit hard to residents whose salaries have lagged inflation, while businesses could pass on the cost to consumers.

Zimbabwe electricity drought
Nothando Siziba cooking using a gas stove during a blackout night.

Siziba said the cutbacks are making things even worse for her. Her family has faced electricity blackouts five times a week and they often reach the limit of 200kWh, which leaves them without power for the rest of the month.

“Sometimes we can top up, and contribute extra small amounts to reach the month’s end. The 200KWh cannot sustain us for a month,” she said.

Since 2008, Zimbabwe has had a prolonged and festering economic crisis. Inflation rate is currently more than 800%, as foreign currency shortages have led to currency deflations. As a result, salaries that cannot keep pace with soaring prices of electricity and other needs.

The coronavirus pandemic has only heaped more hardships into the nation’s financially embattled population. Zimbabwe has 98% of informal sector with most of them being street vendors. Since the coronavirus lockdown was imposed, most of them were sent home, without being able to sell their goods.

Less water, a cause for concern

Episodes of drought in the past few years coupled with changing rainfall patterns within the country have led to the decrease in Lake Kariba’s water levels.

The rains have become erratic in some districts of the country. The UN’s Development Programme estimates agricultural production could decrease by up to 30%, in some of these rural regions. Agriculture is the country’s main economic activity.

Another Harare resident, Christine Goba said that the increase in electricity tariffs are making this even worse for him to survive life in the urban areas.

“We no longer use electricity for cooking here, we are struggling to pay the $10 we used to pay for electricity as it is. The situation is now worse with these tariff increase” said Goba.

Just like Siziba, Goba said she no longer uses electricity for cooking, as it has become too expensive. “We have other needs so it is better to use firewood or gas which is much cheaper”, she added.

Even though some Zimbabweans opted for firewood, many have turned to solar energy to supplement power from the national grid. Solar panels are now mounted on many rooftops all over Harare.

Lovejoy Mtongwiza, is a 28-year-old journalist who resides in Kuwadzana, a high density suburb in a single family house, shared with other three tenants.

Mutongwiza said that back in 2017, US$10 was enough for a monthly supply of electricity, for the four families and would use electricity for everything. Now, the tariff amounts to US$40.

“We used to power the whole house with only $10 and I would contribute $2.50 as my share, per month. Things were easy then to raise money and surviving was better in Zimbabwe. But now we are failing to afford US$40 in order for us to reach month end,” said Mutongwiza, who added he now only uses electricity for lights and not for heavy duties like cooking.

zimbabwe electricity drought
A solar energy system in a household in Zimbabwe.

Opportunity for renewables

Climate activist, Elizabeth Gulugulu, projects manager for the African Youth Initiative on Climate (AYIC) said the only solution to help the poor Zimbabweans out of climate change is to expand solar energy production.

“Renewable energy is a solution to the climate crisis and paves way for economic growth. An investment in renewable energy is an investment into the future and let’s not forget how affordable and cheap it is even to the marginalized communities,” said Gulugulu.

Talent Mapara, a technical support at a local solar company, Frecon Solar Zimbabwe (FSZ) said the recent price increases show the importance of expanding renewables in the South African country.

“We cannot talk of renewable energy without mentioning climate change and or global warming. These two are the main drive on why renewable energy is the future,” said Mapara.

For Gulugulu, taking advantage of solar energy production might be an opportunity to reduce prices and, at the same time, reduce the country’s emissions.

“By doing so we are not only providing people with clean energy but we are creating decent and green jobs for people, giving them healthy lives and reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere,” added Gugulu.