By Madalitso Mwando
HARARE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Big cities across the world struggle with crime, and Zimbabwe’s Harare is no exception.
Naison Gumpo, a journalism student studying in the capital, knows this only too well.
“I was mugged right in the central business district and lost my jacket, wallet and passport. I long ago stopped walking in the city center at night,” said Gumpo, recalling what has become a familiar story in this city of more than 3 million.
With streetlights going out in regular power blackouts, “Harare streets have become havens for muggings, even motorists are not safe,” he said.
According to a website that monitors crime in Harare, in January 2015, only a little over 20 percent of the city’s residents said they felt safe walking alone at night.
But an ambitious city lighting program by the municipality could provide the relief many residents seek.
Harare City Council is installing solar-powered street lights that will illuminate the central business district at night, with plans to extend the project to other parts of the city.
The country is increasingly turning to the sun for its energy requirements, with the government hoping to build billion-dollar solar plants countrywide if it can find needed investment.
According to Harare municipal officials, solar street lights will reduce electricity bills and save the city about $200,000 each month.
The $15 million solar streetlight project is a partnership with a Zambian firm. The first phase of the roll-out is in the central business district, with plans to extend the project to provide citywide street lighting, according to city town clerk Tendai Mahachi.
Solar energy projects are also expected to be developed in other cities, with Gweru, the country’s third largest city, also planning to install solar-powered street lights.
Michael Chideme, Harare municipal spokesperson, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the two-year project will see the installation of 4,000 solar street lights in the city.
“We are starting with the central business district then we will move to other parts of the city,” Chideme said.
The solar switch comes as the country continues facing power blackouts, which affect street lights and create heightened opportunities for crime when streets are dark at night, residents say.
Harare has however shelved the installation of solar-powered traffic lights citing lack of funds.
'SUN IS FREE'
“It makes sense turning to solar because the sun is free and most of the municipality is failing to service public amenities citing lack of funds,” said Collins Mabaso, a vendor who hawks fruits, sweets and mobile phone recharge cards in the central business district.
“I work late and I know the darkness of these streets. It’s even worse in the townships,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The energy development ministry says broadening use of solar energy will help ease the country’s long-running energy crisis.
In February, Meeco, an international firm that has partnered with local players, announced the government had granted the company’s planned $400 million solar plant “national project status” which means Meeco will be exempt from duty, while a joint Zimbabwean-Chinese company also has plans to set up a $1 billion solar plant in Lupane, in the southwest of the country.
However, there are concerns that the capital-intensive solar projects could be delayed as government struggles to attract international partners and investors for the projects.
(Reporting by Madalitso Mwando; editing by Laurie Goering)