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Finding Light in the dark

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Zambian-born Tariq Yusuf knew it was a gamble when his company approached Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. Yusuf wanted to build a 260-hectare, 100-megawatt (MW) solar power plant. His last venture, the Tara KLamp, a controversial medical tool used for circumcisions in South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal province, hadn’t paid off. Worse still he’d been under fire from the media for years.

Fortune favors the brave and Yusuf bounced back. His family-run business, Intratrek, supplied everything from helicopter parts to medical equipment. Zimbabwe and solar panels were the new frontier.

“When you are going for such a deal you have your ups and downs. Then one day you get that letter. I was here in Johannesburg and I got a phone call from Wicknell [Chivayo], our partner in Zimbabwe, he screamed ‘we got it, we’ve won the project’,” says Yusuf.

This small slice of business turned with Zimbabwe’s lack of energy. Zimbabwe is energy starved. Since 1999, it has been hampered with rolling black outs and load shedding. The country generates 1,500MW while the demand sits at 2,000MW. Zimbabwe also leans on expensive imports from the Southern Africa Power Pool, a cooperation of national electricity companies, says Chivayo, Managing Director of Intratrek Zimbabwe.

The country also opened up its power to private business in June last year. Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) wants private business to build power plants for the state to run. The government has Zim Asset set up as a private IPP company. Zesa intends to increase national power supply by 900MW and build 300MW of renewables by the end of 2018, says Munacho Mutezo, the deputy energy minister. Even more business is set for the long term when Zim Asset wants to upgrade power plants and build new ones.

The sticking point is the money. Zim Asset needs to borrow almost $10 billion to finance the program, and few countries are willing to loan. The delays could make the five-year fix a 30-year nightmare says Zimbabwe Vice President Joice Mujuru.

For Yusuf, its good business for now. Solar farms are quick to build; they have a turnaround period of 10 months, according to Chivayo. By May, Yusuf expects to see the $216-million solar plant ready to go live on the grid.  They have strong backing, China-based CHINT, a behemoth in solar energy worth $30 billion, are the main contractors; their funders are Afreximbank. Intratrek Zimbabwe threw $3 million into the investment.

“For me – a 27-year-old – this was a game changer; it’s something that can help a lot of people in Africa and it has put us on the map,” says Yusuf.

Yusuf’s plant will harness the rays of the sun for the next 50 years. Not a bad reward for taking a chance where few had risked before.

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