As Storm Katie caused havoc across England, headlines shout of the disastrous results of the powerful winds. The BBC reported that more than 200,000 homes were without power at the height of the storm, and 27,000 were still without access to electricity the next day.
It is impossible to not draw the connection to load-shedding and poor access to electricity whilst living in Lusaka. Eight-hour outages of power per day are driven by not enough supply to meet the exploding demand, disrupting personal, professional and social lives of all its inhabitants. This is without considering the 96% of the rural population that have no access to grid power at all.
Of all the impacts, perhaps the least discussed within the Zambian media is the effect on small and medium sized businesses. For Lusakan entrepreneurs, the constant struggle for electricity and the disastrous effect on their business is usually accepted with a shrug of the shoulders, powerless to impact the government-owned supplier ZESCO who operate the grid. But the impacts on their business are huge.
The effects are many. Productivity falls as employees lack the basic access to computers and internet for large proportions of the day. This reduces the speed of work, confines the hours that can be worked in daylight, and limits the complexity of tasks that can be completed to those needing only paper and pen. Combine this with the inability to run machinery, and manufacturing methods are reduced to pre-industrial revolution levels of productivity. Meanwhile the cost of employment remains the same, making it harder for businesses to afford new employers; contributing to Zambia’s burgeoning unemployment problem.
There are solutions to ensure electricity reaches the office. The most common solution is the purchase of a generator, which can be used when the grid power goes off. But the cost of the generator is often prohibitive to new emerging businesses, for whom capital is a problem anyway. Once the generator is installed, the cost of petrol (which has more than doubled in the past 12 months) also makes it costly to run. This puts new business at a big disadvantage compared to bigger incumbents, reducing competition in the capital. To further compound the problem, load-shedding can be notoriously unpredictable.
Although ZESCO schedules for a certain time each day, this eight hour period changes and guidelines should be treated as tentative at best. This unpredictability further hinders the ability of businesses to plan, creating uncertainty that undermines their solid foundations. A more organised and better plan for outages would provide huge improvements, albeit not solve the problem outright.
We treat reliable power as a basic necessity of doing business in the United Kingdom, and something which should be expected. This is why headlines after storms are so attention grabbing. To kick-start its private sector and have a new offspring of exciting businesses in a range of fields, Zambia needs to find a solution to load-shedding. Otherwise its development will be severely stunted, and the leash will remain firmly on the country’s growth prospects.