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Can Zimbabwe stem its tide of shoddy solar imports?

Stricter regulations and better consumer awareness could be the answer, but slow legislation remains a stumbling block

<p>Cheap solar panels for sale in downtown Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe (Image: KB Mpofu / China Dialogue)</p>

Cheap solar panels for sale in downtown Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe (Image: KB Mpofu / China Dialogue)

This article was originally published on Dialogue Earth under the Creative Commons BY NC ND licence.

Cyril Zenda

July 9, 2024

Pardon Mahuntse has a deep understanding of climate change. He is well aware of the harsh reality facing the arid part of Zimbabwe he calls home, which has been getting even drier. So every time the 66 year old sees the huge solar photovoltaic panel sitting idle in his home, he chokes with anger.

The retired schoolteacher from Chikombedzi in the rural south-east of the country bought the panel for USD 350 in 2016 from an informal trader. He thought it would be perfect for powering a pump to irrigate the vegetables he has been growing: a project he anticipated would generate income to support a blissful retirement. Mahuntse scraped together hard-earned savings to invest in the solar panel, along with a battery, water pump and other accessories.    

However, his dream project floundered when he discovered that only a small section of the panel was genuine. The rest was just paint and glass.

Like Mahuntse, individuals and communities across the African continent are adapting to climate change by adopting practices that mitigate its effects. These include irrigation, renewable-power generation, and conservation farming. Such practices rely on equipment like solar panels, batteries, inverters, water pumps, and lighting systems.

Solar panels and water heaters on rooftops in Penhalonga, a mining village near Mutare on Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique (Image: KB Mpofu / China Dialogue)

 

 

These green-energy products can spearhead the energy transition, but progress is being hampered by unscrupulous suppliers selling low-quality imitations and outright fakes. In Zimbabwe, both low-quality and defective products are entering the country legally and illegally.

Rectifying the issue is a pressing concern given the southern African country’s unreliable national grid and low rate of electricity access. However, new laws and standards to tighten up the quality of imports have been stuck at the draft stage for years. Though efforts are being made to train solar installers in distinguishing between quality and inferior products, experts tell Dialogue Earth that stricter customs enforcement, as well as public-awareness campaigns, are sorely needed.

A huge market

On Harare’s bustling streets, where Mahuntse acquired his equipment, informal traders hawk their wares. Here, prices are undeniably lower and bargaining is practically an art form. But with warranties being an alien concept, these bargains carry big risks.

The sales pitch presented to Mahuntse was appealing: a hefty 450-watt capacity. But in reality, the solar panel had less than 100 watts, he tells Dialogue Earth.

The battery also fell far short of its promised capacity. “The 200 [amp hour] gel battery could be charged to full, only for the charge to drop within a few hours, even without being used,” he says. With the pump, “not once did it reach its rated output of 1,400 litres per hour”, he notes. “In less than a month, it had broken down.”

The influx of poor-quality products into Zimbabwe can be traced to when the country adopted a Look East policy in 2003, says Rosemary Mpofu, executive director of the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ). The policy was introduced to mitigate economic impacts from Western sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe.

“Ordinary consumers have a tendency of considering pricing over quality… Some of the products are imitations, counterfeits and of questionable quality,” Mpofu tells Dialogue Earth. This includes solar-photovoltaic products.     

Phillip December, an electronics technician in Harare with over two decades of experience, has witnessed the full spectrum of green technology in the capital.

“Most of these green energy products are either of very poor quality or are plain fakes,” he notes.

Deceptive labelling, he says, is just the tip of the iceberg. “Some products don’t just come with misleading labels, but also their sizes are usually falsified,” he explains.

“From phone batteries to power banks, all the way up to domestic and industrial solar units, it’s commonplace to find these things stuffed with sand, glass, or some other cheap, weighty filler,” he explains.

worker reaching for wired device on display in electronics shop
An electronics shop in Mutare mainly sells solar equipment from an Indian company called Nexus. Most of these Nexus products are originally manufactured in China (Image: KB Mpofu / China Dialogue)

 

Tom Herud, a hardware and electrical goods dealer based in downtown Harare, oversees 12 shops, and imports at least four shipping containers of products from China monthly. He says that about a third of his products are solar equipment. “China has all standards of products for all markets, so I import what I know can sell in the market that I serve,” he tells Dialogue Earth.

“We get these products very cheap there and we also sell them very cheap here because there is a huge market for them,” says Herud. Fakes find a place in the market, he adds.

At his workshop, Herud has a team of three technicians who specialise in repairing malfunctioning goods. He says that, of the solar equipment he sells, about 20% is returned. While he only imports from China, similar products come from India, Dubai, Pakistan and Indonesia, he adds.

To reduce the number of poor-quality products distributed, Mpofu says there is a need to curb smuggling at ports of entry and to conduct consumer-awareness campaigns about adopting smart shopping trends. “It should be a holistic approach by all sectors involved,” she notes.

Protecting consumers

Back in 2015, Zimbabwe’s Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) announced plans to set up a laboratory to test solar equipment entering the domestic market. The lab was supposed to be a collaboration with the Standards Association of Zimbabwe.   

Nearly a decade on, the lab is “yet to be procured by the authority,” says ZERA’s chief executive officer Edington Mazambani.       

Also in 2015, ZERA announced it would draft minimum-quality standards for importers and retailers of solar equipment. So far, these regulations have not passed the draft stage. In the same year, the government appointed certification company Bureau Veritas to carry out pre-shipment inspections of certain products, including electrical goods, to ensure they are up to scratch. However, a 2019 report on this programme by Zimbabwe’s auditor-general Mildred Chiri revealed “shortcomings” that resulted in the bulk of imports escaping scrutiny.

“The programme did not have critical provisions that could help in combating [the] influx of substandard goods,” the report stated.

“The fact that most of the goods were not being checked for quality … increased the risk of substandard goods finding their way into the country,” it added.

 

 

woman sitting on brick wall near small propped up solar panel
Renewable energy could help to alleviate energy poverty in Zimbabwe. However, poor-quality equipment could damage perceptions and so slow uptake (Image: KB Mpofu / China Dialogue)

 

Sub-standard products continue to proliferate in the market due to unscrupulous traders capitalising on the heightened demand for solar equipment and exploiting buyers’ inadequate understanding. This is despite Zimbabwe having passed a Consumer Protection Act in 2019 to defend consumers from such suppliers.

To try and close existing knowledge gaps in the meantime, ZERA has started nationwide campaigns to train technicians in solar-system design and installation, in partnership with the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre and the Harare Institute of Technology (HIT).

HIT engineer Emmanuel Ndala says the short course helps trainees identify counterfeits and poor-quality products.

Mahuntse’s veg-growing project was finally able to take off when he sold two of his six cattle to purchase better quality products from neighbouring South Africa.

As Zimbabwe and the broader southern African region face a continued power crisis and rationing due to droughts and ageing infrastructure, Mahuntse hopes regulation, inspection, awareness and import controls all work together to keep shoddy solar products out of the market.

“Experience like mine slows down the uptake of solar … perpetuating the current energy poverty,” he said.

https://dialogue.earth/en/energy/can-zimbabwe-stem-its-tide-of-shoddy-solar-imports/

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