Zimbabwe's energy-starved fuel stations turn to solar.

Author:Marima, Tendai
 
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As power cuts take their toll on Zimbabwe's economy, private companies are finding innovative solutions to keep their businesses going. Tendai Marima reports from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

The whirring sound of a diesel generator starts another day without electricity at a Total fuel station in Bulawayo. A long queue of motorists scramble to get served before the fuel runs out or the generator is switched off for a cooling period after six hours of non-stop use.

The station in the low-income suburb of Entumbane, which experienced disturbances during nationwide protests against a fuel price hike in January 2019, continues to trade. But Zimbabwe's problems with power cuts and rapidly devaluing local currency have made business harder, prompting fuel supply irregularity and erratic pricing.

The government's recent reversal of a ban on trading in foreign currency following last year's restoration of the local Zimbabwe dollar will allow service stations to import fuel for sale in foreign currency. After nearly two years of persistent fuel shortages, the U-turn is intended to ease supplies for hard-pressed petrol stations. But Zimbabwe still faces many challenges in restoring smooth trading, and at Total Entumbane, erratic electricity supply continues to hamper daily operations.

Station manager Thula Mbambo tells African Business that lengthy power cuts experienced at least four times a week make daily operations difficult.

"We never know when we will have power back. Sometimes it's there in the morning for a few hours then it goes the whole day, sometimes it's not there and it comes late at night after the station has closed, making it difficult for us to operate under such circumstances. When we get product and there is no power we use the diesel we should be selling to customers to keep the generator on the whole day, so it eats into our margins. If we were to get solar panels it would really make things easier for us."

Qetello Zeka, Total Zimbabwe's managing director, says that company has already installed solar panels at six of its stations and plans to equip another 44, including Entumbane. As the first petroleum firm to turn to solar in Zimbabwe, the company is investing $4m in solar-powered service stations.

"Our plan is to solarise half of our stations in Zimbabwe over five years. We are committed to providing cleaner, better, reliable and tangible energy solutions. The frequent power cuts have increased service stations dependent on generator...

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