Tuesday, October 4

‘Electricity can go anytime here’: how Zimbabwe’s iron men ran out of steam | global development


Inside a grimy flat in the heart of Mbare, one of Zimbabwe’s oldest townships, steam billows from a hissing iron.

It is 7am and Nhamo Chari, 42, is racing to finish ironing a client’s clothes before the power cuts out.

“Electricity can go anytime here. We are lucky that today power is still available around 7am. It normally goes at 5am and is restored in the evening,” Chari says.

Zimbabwe has been reeling under crippling power shortages since the start of winter in May. Some of the country’s aging power plants are being repaired and the rest are struggling to cope with growing demand.

The country has the capacity to generate about 2,240 megawatts of power, but is producing just 1,300 megawatts.

People in Mbare, in the south of the capital, Harare, regularly go without electricity for more than 17 hours a day.

The shortages have hit Mbare’s ironing businesses, which are becoming a popular hustle in the suburb as unemployment and inflation rates soar across the country.

Chari has seen his income drop from $20 a day to $3. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

Almost 60 people run their businesses from the Matapi block of flats in Mbarel before the power cuts they were earning up to $100 (£83) a week. They support a booming secondhand clothing industry in the area. Chari and his colleagues are inundated with orders from used clothing dealers who want their goods ironed before selling them on.

“Individual traders and companies come to give us work, especially those who manufacture school uniforms. But mostly individuals selling secondhand clothes are our biggest business. I got at least $20 a day, depending on how much work I get,” he says.

However, due to the power cuts, Chari, who started his ironing business when he lost his job eight years ago, now earns just $3 a day – hardly enough to buy a loaf of bread and some milk.

“Things are tough. Electricity is our biggest problem here as it comes and goes, with no actual time table. But during the few hours where electricity is there, I try to work as hard as I can so that I feed my family,” says Chari, adding that the money he has earned from the business has helped him put his two children through school.

To make his income stretch, Chari runs a pool table where he charges 150 Zimbabwe dollars (about 34p) for a game.

“At least it is something, I can supplement the little I get when the electricity is back,” he says.

Tafadzwa Nyakurewa, 35, rents two ironing tables inside a warehouse in the township, but because of the power challenges he spends most of his day carrying loads of clothes and goods for traders, rather than ironing them.

“Power cuts have made us redundant. Business was good before this month,” Nyakurewa says.

“This is where we survive and if power is switched off every day we are stuck. I have three children to feed.”

Tafadzwa Nyakurewa ironing
Tafadzwa Nyakurewa rents two ironing tables, but because of the lack of power is having to offer his services carrying loads and mending shoes to make ends meet. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), urged the government to act.

“People in the informal sector are hard hit. They have nothing to earn because their businesses rely heavily on electricity. Something needs to be done,” he says.

Energy minister Soda Zhemu couldn’t say when the crisis would be over. “We would not know… because currently we are working on aged equipment. We can only give assurance when Hwange power station is up and running … That is when we will have self-sufficiency from internal generation,” he recently told parliament. Hwange coal power station, a leading supplier, has been under repair for more than a year. Two new units are being built to increase output, but they are unlikely to be in operation until the end of the year at the earliest.

Zimbabwe recently signed a deal with Zambia’s state energy company Zesco to supply 100 megawatts of power each month over the next three to five years at a cost of $6.3ma month.

Ruvimbo Makombe reads by candlelight during power cut in Harare, 28 July 2022.
Student Ruvimbo Makombe reads by candlelight during power cut in Harare, 28 July 2022. Photograph: Aaron Ufumeli/EPA

According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat), more than 2.8 million people work in the informal sector in Zimbabwecompared with 495,000 in formal employment.

Nyakurewa used to earn about $25 a day. Now “if I get $6, I would have worked very hard”, he says.

“I spend my time mending shoes now because during the day, we do not have power. It is a side job to make ends meet.”

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