Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – At the petrol station run by Emmanuel Bhuru in Zimbabwe’s second industrial city of Bulawayo, power outages are the norm.
Since the station does not have a functional generator, his staff now work shorter hours. During most of their 12-hour shifts, they sit around waiting for the electricity to work and then leave an hour early to get home before dark. Perishable products often don’t go well in station mini-mart refrigerators, too.
“We lost a lot of perishable items because of the power cut so we cut back and bought less yoghurt, polony. [bologna]margarine and other perishables, and we just have to write it off as a loss because it’s not the manufacturer’s fault,” he said.
The power outage also led to a reduction in the amount of fuel sold and the station continued to fail to meet the targets set by the fuel dealer. Bhuru estimated that in July, sales dropped by “close to 70 percent because the power went out five to six days a week”. He hopes to improve his generator to avoid losses this August.
“The power can go at any time here, it’s never guaranteed and … if there’s no electricity, no generator, we just have to close the station and go home,” he told Al Jazeera.
In fact, many small and large businesses across the country have been forced to rely on alternatives as the ongoing power crisis in the country has left many struggling to survive.
As the country heads to the ballot on August 23, this energy shortage is one of the main issues at stake. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been in power since 2017, has promised to be strong enough if he is re-elected, telling people at his rallies that there is no one and no place left.
To ease the country’s energy problems, the government recently commissioned two additional power units at the Hwange Thermal Power Station that will add 600 megawatts to the country’s capacity. At its commissioning ceremony in August, Mnangagwa hailed the launch as a turning point for the country and said more energy would be a critical factor in industrialisation.
“We are now strong enough,” the 80-year-old told a cheering crowd at a rally in Harare, the capital. “Before I heard complaints … but there is no more load shedding and when someone comes to complain saying that the meat is rotten in their fridges, they are lying, tell them to bring their rotten meat and we will give them a new piece.”
But there is no trickle-down effect for most.
“If there are no more power cuts, then we have to see it, not just declare it,” Bhuru said with a chuckle.
There is no quick fix
The newly commissioned units will increase the capacity of the national grid from the current 1,400 megawatts to 2,000 megawatts. But Mnangagwa’s government says it wants to increase that to 2,500 megawatts by 2025 to cope with rising demand from the mining sector.
More than half of Zimbabwe’s export earnings come from gold and platinum, however, the Zimbabwe Chamber of Mines cites unstable power supply as a key risk factor for the industry’s growth. The country is mostly dependent on energy imports from Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia, but Zimbabwe has been disconnected due to non-payment of debts worth more than $100m to regional suppliers.
Young presidential challenger Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has an ambitious goal of increasing electricity generation to at least 6,000 megawatts by 2029. The CCC manifesto mentions raising $4.3bn to rebuild in power generation and reducing electricity tariffs to match the regional price.
Currently, regular breakdowns in several thermal power stations due to outdated equipment and low water levels in Kariba, the country’s main hydroelectric plant, have affected power output. Chamisa, 45, says he has plans to raise $300m to modernize the national grid.
But Kurai Matsheza, president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), told Al Jazeera that there is no quick fix to Zimbabwe’s electricity problems.
“Any new capacity is welcome, but it still falls short of what we need as a country. We have challenges with drought and climate change affecting the hydroelectric station and the new units. in Hwange is a positive addition, but it is not enough, we fear that power challenges will continue in the future,” he told Al Jazeera.
Matsheza explained that medium and long-term strategies are needed to solve a crisis that, amid economic challenges, has increased the price problems that have caused the increase in tariffs.
After a 37 percent increase in April, prices doubled in July.
This makes life difficult for Zimbabweans, especially in a country that, like Syria and Venezuela, has one of the highest rates of hyperinflation in the world.
The Zimbabwe dollar has lost more than 80 percent of its value against the US dollar since the start of the year. On the streets, the latter is the preferred currency of choice, but paying for electricity in foreign currency doesn’t make much difference to Daniel Ndlovu, a gold miner on the outskirts of the city.
“We are still fighting to keep things going, even if I pay a dollar, the power goes out, so I rely on my backup. Generators are a big investment and this means constant repairs, I can’t run into a mine so I’m looking for a more stable plan,” he said.
Built over five years, the Hwange expansion, the largest government infrastructure project ever, was financed through a concessional loan of $1.3bn from the Chinese government. It is one of four energy projects being built by Chinese contractor Sinohydro.
Relations between Beijing and Harare have strengthened over the years as the Far Eastern ally provides development funding and investment support.
In contrast, Western states have avoided Zimbabwe which is still subject to sanctions imposed in the early 2000s for controversial land reforms. And international financiers such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank cannot provide loans to Zimbabwe until the $10bn external debt is resolved.
Lights ahead of the ballot
The past five years of Mnangagwa’s rule have seen the country plunge into a deep fiscal crisis and analysts warn that the economy could worsen without quick policy changes.
But Mnangagwa said that if re-elected, he would transform Zimbabwe into a middle-income economy by 2030. Last year, the government announced agreements to commission 27 solar independent producers of electricity to create solar parks that will generate 1.1 gigawatts by 2025, but currency volatility and unfavorable taxes have discouraged investors from taking over.
With the credibility of the vote key to improving international relations and attracting long-term investment, opposition challenger Chamisa has promised to fix the ailing economy and end human rights abuses.
A tense political situation led to the death of at least one opposition supporter and many others were injured in clashes with police or ruling party supporters. And it is a reminder of past violence; the 2018 vote left six dead after the military opened fire on protesters.
As the country goes to the polls looking to a better future, citizens like Bhuru hope the ballot results translate into strength and progress for the grassroots, no matter who win.
“I hope this election means they will hear our cries, the economy is bad. Here we need power so we can work properly, but more than that, we need to end this suffering,” he said.