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Renewables and Rural Energy for Development in Zimbabwe


Maxwell C Mapako


Zimbabwe, is a country of 390,757 square kilometres, and has, according to the latest Central Statistical Office estimates, a population of about 12.3 million persons, with 92 males per 100 females. The urban population was about 3,826,580 (32% of total) in 1997. The national total number of households was 2,510,410, with an average household size of 4.7, of which 67% were male headed. 35% of all households have grid electricity. Wood is used by 62% of all households (urban and rural) to cook. This figure rises to 95% when only rural households are considered. Some 24% of all households use electricity to cook, this figure rising to 61% in urban areas, with 31% of urban households using kerosene for cooking. 84% of urban households are electrified while 7% of rural households are grid-electrified.

For historical reasons, rural energy issues were largely neglected before independence in 1980. With the coming of independence, vigorous efforts were made to develop many sectors of the economy, principally education and health, but also rural energy as a way to achieve a high degree of autonomy. The Government directly participated in the implementation of most renewable energy initiatives, with the result that Zimbabwe has one of the highest totals of installed renewable energy systems in the region. Despite these efforts, it is clear, some twenty years later that the impact of all that effort is much less than what might be expected, and that much of the momentum seems to be gradually waning.

This study explores the political will, impact of welfare and income generating approaches, economic soundness or rural energy initiatives and suitability of the implementing agencies in an attempt to highlight the factors that may have led to success or failure of initiatives. Unless such reflection is undertaken periodically, future initiatives will inevitably repeat mistakes of the past. The necessary data was mostly compiled from interviews and observations at rural service centres, the BUN/AFREPREN/FWD National Energy Policy Seminar, 21-22 September 2000, discussions with energy specialists, discussions with industry, and recent literature, particularly the 1997 review of the past energy programmes of the Department of Energy by Mapako in 1997 and more recent interviews in 2000.

An overview of rural energy initiatives is presented, in each case important issues are pointed out especially how successful the initiatives were, whether they were welfare or income focussed, and how the institutional structure of the implementing institution may have affected the fate of the initiative.

Poor construction of rural household biogas digesters, especially at the beginning of the programme and poor maintenance by ill trained users resulted in some of the digesters falling into disuse. On the part of Department of Energy, lack of suitable transport for rural trips curtailed monitoring of projects. Lessons were therefore not learned as the programme progressed. Some biogas digesters were never completed and never operated.

The majority of biogas digesters were more welfare type installations, with an insignificant minority of owners paying the full price for their installations. In addition, with the exception of well under 10% of all cases, the installations were not for income generation purposes.

A handful of mini hydro sites are in existence predominantly in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. The mini hydro sites are largely private initiatives and geared to income generation. They exhibit a good maintenance record and impressive longevity.

Solar PV technology has taken root in Zimbabwe due to the activities of both the public and private sectors. Institutional systems have predominantly been part of programs funded by international donors.  Most have experienced problems of maintenance and spares once the project support ended. The majority of systems in the field may be those procured and installed through informal channels by the owners. Some energy service company type approaches have been started and are continuing. PV water pumping has also been demonstrated through several initiatives, notably the initiative that involved DoE/GTZ and the Department of Water and installed some 16 pumping stations which have been handed over to the Department of Water.

The wood stove project started in 1982 with trial designs to establish the best design for fuel conservation in Seke Communal Lands.  A pilot phase was then carried out in the Hurungwe and Guruve areas.  The stove, a mud and brick structure with three cooking places and a chimney has undergone a lot of change since the project started. A number of reasons were found to be responsible for the disappointing level of adoption of the “improved” stoves in Zimbabwe, among them inappropriate sitting in the kitchen, limited functionality of the stove, non-portability of the stove, inability to control stove heat output, inability to use slower burning larger logs and discomfort due to heat retention by the stove in hot weather (GTZ/Department of Energy 1997, ProBEC, 2000)

Gasification of crop residues was tried experimentally by the Department of Energy but not followed up with full-scale trials. Commercial gasification has existed since the late 1970’s and has worked well using coke and charcoal as fuels.

The study concludes that in view of the prevailing political and economic uncertainty in Zimbabwe, government is clearly constrained and in the short-term will be preoccupied with political economic issues. The shortcomings of government departmental structures in the implementing projects have been brought out, and it was felt necessary to bring energy planning under the rural development umbrella. The role of government departments in implementation of projects was found to be ineffective. Fortunately, the decision to reduce the implementation role for the Department of Energy has already been taken. The large number of unsatisfactorily completed renewable energy projects will make it difficult to be taken seriously by end users in future and corrective action needs to be taken where this is still feasible. Having noted the relative success of initiatives that were not welfare focused it is also recommended to focus on initiatives with an income generating focus. In this regard the current role of certain conventional options like diesel gensets in the rural energy sector is clear and acknowledged.

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