Electricity blackouts darken prospects for Zimbabwe's students

by Ray Mwareya | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 November 2015 10:30 GMT

In this 2006 file photo, 14-year-old Zimbabwean twins Gugulettu (L) and Ntokozo Ndebele read and write by candlelight at their family home in the Zimbabwe capital Harare. REUTERS/Howard Burditt

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“You bump into primary school students who try to learn what a website is in front of a laptop that's switched off!”

MASVINGO, Zimbabwe, Nov 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nearly everyone in Zimbabwe struggles with the country's failing electricity supply, but for many rural young people it may be their future that is at risk of shutting down, experts say.

Among the hardest hit by worsening electricity shortages across the country are school students, particularly in rural areas, they say.

Blackouts linked to drought are leading to disrupted or cancelled classes, above all in rural schools, which serve about 55 percent of the country's students, school officials say.

The crisis also is discouraging teachers from working in the countryside, and threatening the health and the job prospects of young people, they say.

Electricity is an increasingly scarce commodity in Zimbabwe. The country gets much of its electricity from hydropower, but water levels in Lake Kariba, the world's largest man-made reservoir, have plummeted by 30 percent as a result of drought.

Kariba is meant to contribute 819 megawatts (MW) towards meeting the country's peak national demand of 1,345 MW, but output from the lake has fallen to just 470 MW.

Zimbabwe's cities and villages are now frequently struck by 10-hour blackouts.

"Schools are hardest hit in this energy poverty debacle," said Loyd Bako of the Zimbabwe Rural School Teachers Union, one of the country most prominent trade unions.

COMPUTERS, BUT NO ELECTRICITY

Betty Nyoni, 17, a physical sciences student from Demene, in the south of the country, would like to become an electrician designing cell phone towers, but is frustrated by her school experience.

"We normally have no electricity. We skip experiments in electrical physics and switchboard designs. Our test marks flop, and are inferior to students in city schools that have better power supplies," she said.

Bako agrees that computer equipment, agriculture workshops and science laboratories are often left idle by the power cuts.

"Last week I visited a secondary school where students used a smoky diesel generator to dry seeds for a farm experiment. You can't produce results in such chaos," he said.

In recent years progress has been made in outfitting Zimbabwe's rural schools with science laboratories, electric sockets and workshops with electrically powered machines. The government, donors and student alumni bodies all joined hands to plant technology in far-flung schools.

The Rural Electrification Programme, a state agency, says 803 schools had electricity installed and 402 rural school and clinics had been fitted with mini grid solar reservoirs by May 2015.

The agency's chief executive, Joshua Mashamba, said the electrification has had multiple community benefits.

"When a rural school is electrified, a nearby clinic and growth point is covered too," he said. Growth points are rural hubs where the government builds clinics, banks and other businesses in one place.

But the current power shortages are now choking off progress.

At many rural secondary schools, sciences and technical subjects like fashion and design are only taught on paper. Refrigerators that should freeze and preserve science samples for biology classes are unable to function. Machines to cut cloth designs for students cannot be turned on.

"Students are learning out of (their) imagination," said Chenjerai Gwata, head of policy at the non-profit Zimbabwe Consortium for Civic Education. "Power is down and you bump into primary school students who try to learn what a website is in front of a laptop that's switched off!"

ACCESS TO JOBS?

Andrew Mlambo, an economist in the capital, Harare, is alarmed by the potential impact of the energy shortage on pupils' futures.

"Zimbabwe is weighed down by over 70 percent joblessness. Students who obtain science and technical qualifications have better chances in a shrinking job market," he said.

Reliable electricity is also a matter of health for pupils and communities. In the country's driest province of Matabeleland, electricity is needed to run irrigation pumps for vegetable gardens that feed orphaned children and to power clinics.

The parents of children feel the pain of the power shortage too. Donald Dziva of Hwedza, one of Zimbabwe's richest farming districts, owns a maize-grinding mill and butchery.

"Nowadays electricity is available only from 8pm to 5am. I sleep in my mill or butchery just to catch electricity when it's switched back on. I'm forced to sell meat or refine grain at night. My losses are massive. Two of my kids may (have to) briefly stop attending college next year," he said.

RURAL RECRUITMENT PROBLEMS

Noma Here, secretary of the Zimbabwe National Creche Schools Association, which oversees 140 early childhood schools, said power shortages are among the problems making it hard for rural schools to recruit teachers.

"Most graduate teachers I know shun rural schools with no electricity and piped water. For them these are no-go-areas," she said.

According to Zimbabwe's education ministry, there is a shortage of 1,521 science and mathematics teachers in the country. A sizable number of qualified teachers leave the country to seek better working conditions and wages in neighbouring South Africa, Namibia and Swaziland.

"Very few young, upwardly mobile teachers want to conduct evening classes in rural schools when power returns," Noma said.

The education ministry was not available to comment on the electricity crisis in schools.

Innovators suggest that alternative sources of energy should be tried for Zimbabwe's rural schools to improve access to reliable power.

One possible solution is mounting solar panels on top of classrooms to tap into the country's abundant sunshine.

But Mlambo, the economist, is sceptical. "Solar is clean but expensive. The most recent school solar equipment kit for one school of 300 students costs $2,200." (Reporting by Ray Mwareya; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)

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