Zimbabawe better served by solar assembly & manufacturing capacity Solarpro CEO says

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Friday, 15 April 2022 06:00

Smoke rises from chimneys at Hwange Power station in Hwange
Zimbabwe's Hwange power station, October 19, 2021. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwe needs to develop its assembly and manufacturing capacity in solar panels and batteries to cut reliance on expensive equipment imports, Solarpro CEO Nyasha Chasakara tells The Africa Report.

The unreliability of grid supply means that people in Zimbabwe are moving to solar power “out of necessity” rather than a choice to avoid fossil fuels, Chasakara says in Harare. Transport is among the biggest costs for an importer of equipment, and Chinese products may be much higher specification than what the local market needs, he says. “There is nothing to stop a Zimbabwean company such as ourselves” from moving into assembly and manufacturing.

State-owned power utility Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) often resorts to load shedding lasting for eight hours or more per day as the country grapples with a generation deficit. The two major sources of power in the country are the Kariba hydropower plant, which is constrained by low water levels, and the Hwange thermal power station, which often has breakdowns due to a lack of investment. ZESA aims to add new coal-fired capacity this year in a bid to plug the gap.

Chasakara is a former investment banker with Zimbabwe’s CBZ Bank. His interest in solar started in 2015 when he realised that he could cut about 30% off an electricity bill of about $100 a month by switching to solar power.

But, he found, there was no easy way to get hold of solar panels. “Out of that frustration I decided that the industry needed professionalisation,” he says.

So Chasakara started Solarpro as a sideline in 2015 while still at the bank. He read up on solar power, about which he had little knowledge, in his spare time. The first installations with local materials take place in 2017. He began running the venture full time when he left CBZ in May 2021.

‘Onerous’ loan terms

The company now has an online store and can deliver solar equipment anywhere in Zimbabwe, using a mixture of local suppliers and imports from South Africa and China. But there remain “a lot of gaps in the market,” Chasakara says. The fact that local suppliers sometimes run out of stock shows that there is demand for switching into solar, he adds. “People are moving to solar to avoid power cuts.”

He is now trying to raise debt from the banks to enable Solarpro to import more equipment. A 40-foot container with enough equipment to cover trading needs for about three months  costs about $100,000 to import, he says. The terms sought by banks are “onerous” in terms of collateral required, and penalise the country’s start-ups, he argues.

Still, he is confident in the future of the solar industry in Zimbabwe. A longer-term aim is for the company to move into solar assembly and manufacturing.

Zimbabwe has a supply of highly educated electrical engineering and technology graduates, many of whom can’t currently get jobs, Chasakara says. “Skills are the least of our problems.”

Bottom line

Chasakara sees avoiding Zimbabwe’s grid as a better bet than hoping it gets fixed.

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