ENERGY minister Fortune Chasi (FC) took his oath of office this week, promising to tackle the electricity crisis head-on. His appointment comes at a time power utility Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) has embarked on crippling load-shedding amid dwindling water levels at Kariba Dam, while regional power suppliers like Eskom are threatening to cut Zimbabwe off, owing to a US$83 million debt. Chasi is faced with a daunting task of restoring confidence in the power utility, which has over the years been rocked by corruption and gross mismanagement. Political reporter Nyasha Chingono (NC) had a chat with Chasi to discuss wide-ranging issues. Below are the interview excerpts:
NC: Congratulations on your appointment. Kindly take us through your vision for Zesa.
FC: The ministry’s vision with regards to Zesa is as follows. We would like to address matters to do with corporate governance. We expect the leadership at Zesa to work extremely hard to ensure that everything is done properly and in accordance to the law.
I understand that the board is not sufficiently staffed and that there are other appointments that need to be addressed. I will be addressing that as of next week. My interest is that we ensure that we have a good mix of skills on that board and that we have men and women of integrity and experience. But not only that, we need strategic thinkers at Zesa which means that we need people who are alive to the power issues in the country. By that I mean people who are aware of the hydrological conditioning of Kariba Dam, meaning that they will come up with strategies to counter the developments at Kariba Dam to ensure continuity of supply of power.
When I meet them, I will explain what I need from them. I also expect this board to ensure that procurement at Zesa is done properly, in accordance with the law, especially the Public Finance Management Act, in order to ensure that public property is maintained and also to ensure that in all dealings and negotiations Zesa as a government company is not prejudiced. They must ensure that their procurement is proper and professional. They must also appreciate that any further leakages of public finances at Zesa will attract the necessary action from government. We require that those who would have caused loss and damage, whether they are within or without, will be made accountable.
NC: You come into the ministry at a time the country is experiencing crippling power shortages that are grossly affecting industry and commerce. Are you ready for the daunting task?
FC: I am very prepared. I and my deputy, including our permanent secretary, want to ensure a number of things: to ensure that our parastatals function in a professional manner. By corporate governance I don’t mean ticking boxes, I mean we must see things happen. When we have an effective board, we are able to address issues relative to procurement.
A proper procurement board will not allow projects to last forever without execution. A proper board will also come up with a strategic plan on how they will manage power. I am quite ready and I know that I am going to surmount these challenges.
NC: Zesa is owed US$1,2 billion mainly by top politicians. How are you looking to recover these funds?
FC: There is a debt of US$1,2 billion which is long-standing and arises from expenditure by us as government. We would like to come up with a structure that enables the recovery of that money by Zesa. I also understand that local authorities owe significant amounts and other people. I have asked for an analysis of that debt by name, age and amount so that we can take deliberate action on that debt. I need to emphasise that no entity in the country should expect to get power from Zesa and not pay for it.
I would like to know the extent of the indebtedness of government departments with respect to that debt. I would also like to know the extent of indebtedness to local authorities. When I’m fully briefed, I intend to engage the Ministry of Finance so that we come up with an agreement on that debt. This is so that we sanitise the balance sheet of Zesa and bring money to Zesa that they can use on projects.
NC: Why is it that government has for a long time spoken about alternative sources of power? Why have we not seen concrete steps on the ground?
FC: I am also expecting that Zesa will act decisively on all projects meant to generate new power in a manner that is consistent with the power situation in the country. So I have requested a list of all projects by date, what was supposed to be done. I am going to take a very active interest in the execution of projects so that things don’t stay in the pipeline unattended to when the power situation is dire. We desperately need to be generating power. That links up with my plan to focus on alternative sources of power.
We would like to get to a point where as many entities, particularly the large spenders, are removed from the grid to substitute Zesa power for solar and they can use solar when Zesa is not available. So I expect that Zesa will develop ideas. This is important because we would like to be in a position where we isolate critical organisations like hospitals so that they have solar power. I believe if we take that approach we are going to create a huge saving of foreign currency in many areas.
That’s a key strategic issue. I would like to address that matter by having a menu of projects where we can have quick-wins in terms of removal from the grid and moving on to alternative sources, including solar. I am very keen to interact with companies that are keen to invest in this area so that we make quick progress. In short, I am going to tightly monitor progress on the implementation of projects. So I would like to get those agreements finalised, so that they can be fully visible on the ground. In the future, I will be able to monitor how much they are going to.
I also expect Zesa to be aware of areas that are in desperate need of power. I have in mind areas in Kariba which generate the power, but people in Mola and surrounding areas don’t have power. I would like them to focus on such areas, as well as Binga and other areas in Matabeleland. We need to get power in a deliberate way. I need deliberate action from the Rural Electrification Programme. We are engaging them in the next two weeks and I will tell them my expectations.
NC: The country is experiencing serious power shortages and enduring long hours of load shedding. When are we likely to see the situation improving since the public often complains that Zesa is failing to stick to its schedule?
FC: Load-shedding is a serious matter. I would like to have an important discussion with Zesa to understand the framework that they are using and also to understand capacity to isolate critical areas like hospitals so that they don’t go off during critical times. This is why I’m saying have a programme that critical institutions can be taken off the grid via investment in alternative energy.
We are going to come up with a priority list of things that we should be doing in that area. It should never happen that people should perish as a result of this strategy. Under current circumstances, it is inevitable, but I would want to ensure that it’s only in place to the extent that it is necessary. I also want Zesa to ensure that when there is a schedule, they stick to it. We can’t have a week or two weeks, or something like that. I have received complaints from the public to say they have not kept that schedule.
NC: The Zesa board has previously been marred by gross corruption and abuse of office. Are we likely to see changes in the composition of the board?
FC: I am going to study them and make a decision. But the underlining philosophy is that the boards must have sufficient skills and sufficient motivation to deal with power issues in the country.
NC: Zesa is failing to adequately supply the country with enough power. What is the problem with the power utility?
FC: Part of it has to do with the hydrological issues at Kariba Dam, and I have said we have a responsibility to manage risk. I am advised that may have something to do with global warming and we can’t avoid that. We can take measures to mitigate the loss of power. I also believe that if Zesa had planned for alternative sources of power, that would be much better. I have examined projects where I feel we could have had quick wins.
The public must also have knowledge about tenders. The lack of transparency breeds corruption. So I expect more openness around operations, more openness around projects that are going to be done. When we do that, I think we will have confidence from the public.
NC: You are on record as saying that Wicknell Chivhayo’s Intratrek should return the US$5 million for the failed Gwanda solar project. How are you planning to achieve that?
FC: I have made the point very clear. I expect either the project as initially conceptualised or the money. I also want to make it clear that individuals who collude with outsiders or who are negligent in their work, thereby causing the public purse to suffer, must expect that we will go after them to recover public funds. For me it’s very simple, I am not seeing a project there — I haven’t seen a project. I have seen some pictures; I haven’t seen what was contracted to be done within the requisite time. It’s the responsibility of the leadership at Zesa. What is in the public domain is that there was an acquittal. An acquittal doesn’t mean someone is no longer liable. I expected vigour by Zesa in dealing with this matter. It’s the money or the project, very simple. I don’t know him, all I want is my project or the money. Zesa should deal with that. If the project is happening, well and good; if it is not happening, I want the money. It’s a very basic principle, I want the money. That’s what the people of Zimbabwe expect. I am not going to play games and ignore the matter. I have a very active interest in this.
This is US$5 million and we can’t trivialise it. I can assure you that this is the last time that this kind of thing will happen. I expect the board at Zesa to take decisive action on this issue and I will be pursuing it with them. I also want to say there is an audit report on Zesa, I’m studying it. I expect the board to study the report and carry out the requisite recommendations, that is very important. I’m going to agree with the board on the timeline of implementation.
NC: Is there any hope for solar power generation in Zimbabwe?
FC: I am inundated with either people who have approached government before or new ones with new ideas. I am going to be very accessible to them and, once we agree, I will make sure that I will enable the environment for investors to come. This will be done by ensuring that projects will be processed very quickly and we have also discussed the issue of licensing with the Zimbabwe Energy regulatory Authority. I also expect that their approach to licensing will be alive to the power needs and the dire situation that country is in. So we need a rhythm of energy that is consistent with needs.
NC: Foreign power suppliers have threatened to cut Zimbabwe off owing to US$83 million in arrears. How will this issue be addressed?
FC: I am going to engage Eskom and some of our neighbours to see what they can supply to us but I believe that we will overcome the current challenge. I am going to engage them. I am sure in the customary spirit of good neighbourliness, we always help each other in these areas. I am sure we will be able to agree on the issue and quantum of what we can be assisted with. We are in the process of engaging the Ministry of Finance and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.