Solar energy in Zimbabwe is a new frontier

Sitting in the dark due to the absence of grid electricity at his rural homestead in Esigodini, southern Zimbabwe, Mr Daniel Sibanda decided to invest in a mini-solar system technology to light up his home, and recharge phones.

Mr Sibanda, a poor communal farmer who relies on selling tomatoes and vegetables, spent USD $90 every month, purchasing candles, boxes of matches, paraffin to make sure his children were able to read at night.

“My children are studying for their final year, and studying at night without electricity has been a challenge.  I had to prioritise the future of my children by investing in a mini solar system for lighting up my home, and recharging phones so that my children can study at night,” he said.

But, the Zimbabwean government had promised its rural communities grid electricity to light up homesteads since the 1980 Independence Day, until today, it is failing to deliver on its promise due to lack of investments in the energy sector, according to the government officials.

“Policy inconsistencies in the energy sector were hampering foreign investments in the energy sector. The recent launch of the National Renewable Energy Policy (NREP) and the Biofuels Policy of Zimbabwe, early this year,  represents a major milestone in the country’s efforts to catalyse the transition to renewable energy,” Energy and Power Development Minister, Fortune Chasi said in an interview.

solar energy in zimbabwe
Recently installed  Solar- phone- recharging and Wi-Fi station in Bulawayo: Picture by Lungelo Ndhlovu

Mr Sibanda indicated he found a permanent alternative to his electricity dilemma for his rural home when he  purchased  a solar panel with battery back-up system in January 2020. 

“Last year, I did research in the city and found a local telecommunications company, selling solar power components and products. I was shocked by the quotation the sales lady gave me because it was very expensive to buy the panels and backup battery at once,” he said.

According to Mr Sibanda, he first had to draft  a budget to make a purchase of the solar mini-system.

“I couldn’t manage to buy the solar mini-system at a go because the components were expensive. The money I got from selling my farm produce wasn’t enough. So, I spent, USD$100 for the solar panel, USD300 for the battery, USD$80 for the bulbs and USD$60 for the torch. Thankfully my brother in the USA helped me out,” he said.

Mr Sibanda is one of the many individuals in rural Zimbabwe that have switched to solar power to address the challenge of lack of grid electricity.

Kalani Ndlovu, a rural and communal farmer who in 2019 installed a solar mini grid at his farm at Umguza in Matabeleland North province, said it had proved a good source of energy for pumping water, cooking and lighting.

“Installing the solar system at my farm cost about US$5 000 and I’m enjoying the benefits of the free sun shine,” he said

 Daniel Sibanda showing his mini-solar system which he uses to recharge phones and light-up the homestead: Picture by Lungelo Ndhlovu

Mr Tawanda Muzamwese, Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) solar energy expert, indicated Zimbabwe enjoys more than 3 000 hours of sunlight a year and has a potential to produce 10 000GWh of electricity per year if solar power is fully harnessed.

“The technology for solar power and battery storage has reached a stage where the cost and capability will deliver power to all within a generation,” he said.

Many countries (Zimbabwe included) in the world are harnessing renewable energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, bio-energy (biogas/biomass) and hydro-power, in place of fossil fuels such as coal which increase the amount of carbon dioxide being released to the environment, potentially causing climate change.

The total annual GreenHouse Gas (GHG) emissions for Zimbabwe in 2015, were 22.0 MtC02e, which constitutes 0.045% of the global emissions.

In Zimbabwe, most rural households have mini-solar systems for charging phones and lighting homes. In cities, where electricity has been a challenge for many decades, most households are turning to solar energy as an alternative.

A drive through Bulawayo’s Central Business District (CBD) showed that companies are resorting to installing  solar systems to act as back-up to recurring power cuts as a result of load shedding.  

Miss Lisa Nyamadzawo, SATE WAVE Technologies director who is sprucing up a concept of ‘Green Spaces’ in Bulawayo has recently set up 10 solar charging and Wifi Stations in the CBD,  to promote the use of solar energy.

“The solar stations consist of a solar panel and battery backup system which then powers Wifi and recharging ports for more than 30 phones. As you are aware of the load shedding, so many young people have to study and the solar stations allow youths to do so, free of charge because we are utilising the free sunshine,” she said.

For those that cannot install complete solar systems to power their entire houses, the alternative is to start with a single solar panel and batteries to keep the lights and appliances such as televisions during the current load shedding which last 18 hours a day.

Mrs  Sinikiwe Nyathi from the High Density Suburb of Cowdray Park said  she couldn’t deal with the current load shedding which forced her to install solar.

“It’s like I’m on the national grid, just without power cuts.” she said.

Lungelo Ndhlovu
Lungelo Ndhlovu is a multiple-award winning international journalist based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He specialises in news writing, photography and video production, covering major news, features and local events for various media organisations. He also researches and writes about news stories on climate change, renewable energy on digital platforms and visual journalism.