How politics and poverty affect electricity provision in Zimbabwe

An overwhelming bulk of the region’s electricity grid is concentrated in urban areas.
There is hydro-power potential concentrated along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe yet only 40% of the population has access to electricity. Image: Bloomberg

Zimbabwe’s economic challenges are numerous, but one of the most pressing is electricity scarcity. Around 40% of the country’s population has access to electricity.

The country has access to vast and diverse possible energy resources. These include about 12 billion metric tonnes of coal, hydro power potential concentrated along the Zambezi River and untapped solar power potential.

This is not peculiar to Zimbabwe. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, only 16% of the population has access to electricity. Yet the country could meet much of the entire region’s demand for electricity through the hydro power generation and diversification of renewable energy sources in the country.

I conducted research to establish what the panacea could be for electricity scarcity in Zimbabwe. My conclusion was that the vaunted argument of increasing generation capacity is inadequate. This is because the technological interventions don’t address the distribution concerns.

My study shows that the supply view is only a partial response to the problem. Access to electricity is in fact dependent on socio-economic and political factors. As I argue in my study, the real problems getting in the way of access to electricity are social, political and economic.

These structural factors reproduce electricity social scarcity, which in turn perpetuates social injustice. This is because electricity is essential for development.

What this shows is that policy choices and affordability need to be addressed if the electricity shortage is to be resolved.

Energy mix

Currently, Zimbabwe produces 1 100 megawatts of electricity against a national demand of 1 500 megawatts. It generates power from water and coal, and also imports electricity.

The major source of hydro power for Zimbabwe is the Kariba Dam, which has an estimated capacity of 1 050 megawatts.

Coal-fired power stations produce about 70% of the country’s energy. But the Hwange Coal Power Station is affected by inadequate financial resources for infrastructure and equipment maintenance, leading to supply disruptions.

To make up for the shortfall, Zimbabwe relies on imports from South Africa’s electricity public utility, Eskom, and from Mozambique.

Even if renewable energy were to be added into the energy mix, the supply mix could increase the cost of production, which would then be passed on to the end users.

Factors that drive disparity

There is an urban advantage in Zimbabwe’s energy profile, as is the case across much of Africa. The overwhelming bulk of the region’s electricity grid is concentrated in urban areas, while the vast majority of the population living without electricity is in the rural and peri-urban areas.

According to the Zimbabwe national energy policy report of 2012, 83% of urban households have access to electricity compared with 13% in rural areas. Rural communities meet 94% of their cooking energy requirements from traditional fuels, mainly fuelwood. Wood is the main cooking fuel for 20% of urban households.

No newer reliable data are available, but these trends are likely to have got worse rather than better in the past seven years.

Coal, charcoal and liquefied petroleum gas are used by less than 1% of urban households. The electrification rate in the rural areas is approximately 10%. Connection to the electricity grid is highly unequal.

Households’ poverty status adds to the disparity in access. A 2017 Poverty, Income, Consumption and Expenditure Survey found that extreme poverty was much higher in rural areas. Over 40% of the rural population was extremely poor compared to 4.4% in urban areas.

Poor people have borne the brunt of hyperinflation, which has affected the price of fuel. For example, the price of cooking gas has increased more than six-fold since the start of 2019.

At the same time the electricity tariff has soared by 320%, placing it beyond the reach of many, particularly the poor.


Most analyses consider increased availability of electricity to be linked to technological development. But this school of thought doesn’t acknowledge the structural nature of electricity scarcity.

As my research shows, failure to address this will simply lead to energy poverty being perpetuated.

My study reveals that affordability is a major barrier to electricity access. The affordability factor needs to be considered in its entirety because it is made up of a number of factors. These include electricity rates, income levels, the cost of living and various socio-economic indicators.

Availability doesn’t mean accessibility. Due to the market trends, electricity provision is skewed towards high income groups while the poor use cheaper, inefficient and unclean alternatives such as charcoal and fuelwood.

What needs to be done?

It is imperative to take poor communities into consideration when trying to address Zimbabwe’s power shortages. If this doesn’t happen, the country risks doubling its efforts to increase generation capacity, but leaving behind vulnerable groups.

Zimbabwe can look to South Africa for guidance. Though South Africa has electricity shortages, it cushions the poor against high energy costs. Indigent households get 50kWh of free electricity per month. Where electricity is not available, the country’s Free Basic Alternative Energy policy provides alternative energy such as subsidised paraffin, liquefied petroleum gas, coal and bio-ethanol gel. Customers who use less energy also benefit from a lower tariff.

Zimbabwe’s poor cannot survive the vagaries of the market on their own. The country needs to reduce inequality through an integrated electrification agenda that leaves no one behind.The Conversation

Ellen Fungisai Chipango, postdoctoral research fellow, University of Johannesburg.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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The Tax Payer is paying for all these cushions and subsidies. Nothing is really ‘free’.

Too bad Zim don’t have the right people to fix their electricity problems.

Zimbabwe’s real problem is an electorate that refuses to help itself. People get the government they deserve.

Come to think of it, this is South Africa’s big problem too. An majority who insist on voting for crooks, but then burn trains and throw stones when those they themselves voted for, let the voters down. No pills for stupid.

Get it straight – its the economy that needs to cross the road first and then the rest can follow.
Zims needs to comply with requirements that will see sanctions dropped and assistance towards economic sustainability made available.
But a corrupt gangsterism pervades and controls and it is myopic and beyond reason.
The people must take their “freedom” and do some for themselves with it.
Otherwise by keeping one hand in the tree they keep both feet in the grave.

Ah – always wondered how socialists acquired postdoctorates, now I know – write drivel about how down trodden the poor really are and how they do absolutely nothing to get themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves. Trust Eskom charge Zimbabwe the same inflated rates that they charge suburban citizens here in good old RSA

Zimbabwe can look to South Africa for guidance.
It read like Titanic, ending, and blaming the lifeboat. With the captain sacked before sailing.

Please don’t look to SA for guidance, you will find no good guidance here. We on the other hand are following your guidance and are doing our utmost to get where you are. As in most countries the remedy is actually very simple, vote in a competent caring government.

….yes, it’s the other way around: SA’s political leadership is guided Zanu-PF.

To me it seems that gross mismanagement of the electricity supply and the economy as a whole, plus massive corruption lie at the core of Zim’s problems. Or maybe I better say the misled, poorly informed and uneducated electorate. Or dare I to call it massive ignorance.

Unbridled racism never achieves anything worthwhile. You would have thought we would have learned this lesson in this part of the world but apparently not. Vote for us not because we can do good for you but because we are ‘Black / White’ and when you do that we will exploit you to our (politicians) own advantage. Zimbabweans at least had a country (South Africa) to escape to but what do South Africans do in the same situation?

…similarly, the masses will move again to the country located to the south of SA.

When I google “country located to the south of SA”, my browser stubbornly gives images of Oz or NZ comes up 😉 Only for those who has gold medal in long-distance swimming (read qualifications & sufficient capital).

In 50-100 yrs from now, there will be mass migration to Kenia, Ethiopia, Rwanda and other rising African stars. Move forward a generation or two, many expat Saffas then living in central & east Africa will have fun talking points of old family photos (taken today) of how fat/obese everyone appeared in SA.

End of comments.





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