Millions of mobile phone subscribers and businesses were left stranded as power cuts in Zimbabwe had their biggest mass effect at the weekend.
Econet Wireless – with a subscriber base of at least 10 million people and with control of 90% of mobile money transfers – failed to power its generators on Saturday during 14 hours of load-shedding.
“Our network operations centre failed to kick off following a Zesa power outage,” reads a statement from Econet.
People could not transact through the Ecocash mobile money platform until around midnight when electricity was restored countrywide. Data services on Econet and voice calls were also unavailable.
Industry sources said since last week mobile operators had been contemplating introducing “downtime” for their base stations for at least eight hours per day. The reason is that they cannot afford to run base stations countrywide using diesel-powered generators when fuel is scarce and relatively expensive.
There are 8,976 base stations in Zimbabwe. Econet owns more than 56% of them. The remainder are owned by TelOne and Telecel.
Zimbabwe, facing its biggest power-generation crisis in history, has come up with stop-gap measures to raise money to import power.
Last week government resolved that hotels and other tourism-related entities in the resort town of Victoria Falls should pay for electricity in foreign currency. They will join mines that have been paying in US dollars since last year.
Duty has been scrapped on all solar-related equipment, mostly imported from China and SA, to promote the use of renewable energy.
The power crisis is attributed to low water levels at the Kariba Dam, where there is a hydro power station. Constant breakdowns because of old machinery at the Hwange thermal station and a shortage of foreign currency have also been blamed.
The long-term solution is the construction of the Batoka Hydro power station along the Zambezi River.
Last week the governments of Zimbabwe and Zambia expedited the process by awarding a tender to a joint venture between US firm General Electric and China’s Power Construction Corporation.
The $4,5bn project will result in the generation of 2,400 megawatts to be shared by the two nations.