By Bernard Mpofu
A grey haulage truck pulls to the left as it approaches Westgate Shopping Mall, situated 10 km outside the central business district in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
Momentarily, the truck driver jumps out of the vehicle before being mobbed by a group of mostly women flashing wards of soiled banknotes.
Munyaradzi (surname withheld on professional grounds), a cross- border truck driver does not only ferry consignments assigned to him by his employer. After making his deliveries to the Copperbelt region in Zambia, Zimbabwe’s northern neighbouring country, he uses his truck to carry personal consignment for onward selling in Zimbabwe.
As Zimbabwe continues to face rolling power outages lasting up to 14 hours a day, many domestic consumers of electricity are now looking for alternative sources of energy. Solar is beyond the reach of many people living on less than US$1 a day at a time when the price of liquified petroleum (LP) gas continues to spiral, hovering around ZWL$70 ( US$1.50) per kg.
On the contrary, a bag of charcoal is being sold at ZWL$100 (US$4) much to the relief of many consumers of fossil fuel. The lifting of the COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in demand for electricity increases. In some areas, power cuts are also increasing as the industry resumes business.
“In the past, I would only take passengers on my way to Zimbabwe, but now I carry charcoal which I sell there because it is becoming increasingly risky to take people on such long distances,” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘’ Munyaradzi said.
“On a good trip, I get ZWL$2,500 (US$100) when I sell charcoal to local traders who then resell it to consumers who are experiencing power outages. They say it’s cheaper when truck drivers sell the charcoal compared to buying it from markets like Mbare Musika (a fresh produce market in Harare).”
According to the Zimbabwe Renewable Policy launched in 2019, the shortage of electricity is compounded by the fact that little investment has occurred in the sector in the past 25 years prior to the year 2014.
For many people living in Zimbabwe’s high-density suburbs, and some domestic workers in middle-density residential areas, wood fuel and charcoal have become an affordable option.
Statistics obtained from the government show that Zimbabwe currently has a national electrification rate of 42%. While electricity has reached 83% of the urban households, rural electrification is still around 13% as per the National Energy Policy of 2012. The country has an installed capacity of about 2,300 MW but is currently generating less than half of the daily demand.
More than 50% of electricity is generated from hydropower while the remainder is from thermal power plants. Biogas, mini-hydropower and mini-grids connected solar systems have an installed capacity of about 130MW.
Official statistics show that more than 60% of the population still rely on solid biomass fuel for most household energy needs and have no access to clean, renewable energy sources.
Zimbabwe and Zambia, have strong cultural and economic linkages. Beyond that, the two countries are facing the same socioeconomic challenges.
Drought has plunged millions of Zambians and Zimbabweans into darkness as hydro-power dams dry up, while their governments’ debts are worsening the situation.
Kariba Dam provides water for the country’s largest hydropower station and the effects of climate change have seen water levels in the lake dwindling. The power crisis in the two countries has exacerbated economic strain. Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product is expected to shrink by 6.4
While many are turning to charcoal to ease the country’s power shortages, this source of fuel has had its implications on public health overall.
Smoke in the kitchen has proved to be a killer. Research shows that pollutants produced by burning charcoal can lead to cardiovascular diseases such as artery blockages, leading to heart attacks, and tissue death and heart damage due to oxygen deprivation.
Byron Zamasiya, Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association programme officer in charge of Climate Change, Land and Wildlife Resources, said turning to wood fuel resulted in massive deforestation.
“My perspective is that we are destroying the ozone layer by cutting down trees without planting new ones. Trees act as carbon sink through absorption of carbon dioxide which destroys the ozone layer,” Zamasiya said.
“In the not so distant future, the effects from such actions will exacerbate the occurrence of extreme events from climate crisis. Some effects include increased high temperatures, decline in rainfall and droughts.”
As many clamour for clean energy, government envisages that the use of renewable energy will increase in 10 years.
The installed capacity of renewable energy, excluding large -scale hydropower is expected to increase from about 5% in 2017 to about 27% in 2030, according to the Ministry of Energy and Power Development.