Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
“Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” goes the old adage. The crippling power woes, where a majority of Zimbabweans go for an average of 12 hours a day without electricity, has taken a toll on homes and business operations across Zimbabwe. However, the power shortages have spawned a new business venture. Far from being a tragedy, the massive power outages have bred new entrepreneurs.
The innovative business people have transformed what could have been a tragedy into a profitable venture selling anything. The innovative Zimbabwean minds have come up with all possible alternative sources of energy for desperate consumers.
Known as “Sawdust Scavengers”, hordes of men and women from high density suburbs like Mufakose, Glen Norah, Glen View, Epworth and Hopely are surviving on this unorthodox venture. They sell sawdust gathered from sawmills scattered around Harare.
The utilisation of sawdust by low end users is seen as a way of ameliorating the effect of load shedding. A Harare resident, Mrs Nyevereyashe Ndebvu says it’s cheaper to use sawdust as an alternative source of energy than paraffin, firewood or even gas.
“We regularly come here to buy sawdust which is cheaper, durable and more user-friendly than firewood or even paraffin,” she said. Mrs Ndebvu was at the roundabout along Masvingo Road, also known as paMbudzi, where she was buying sawdust from a mill along the highway. Users claim that a 50kg bag, which costs $1 can prepare different dishes for a family of five for three weeks, including heating water for bathing.
They use a stove, which is made from an empty five-litre container of paint which costs $1 or less. The proximity of sawmills to Hopley, Glen Norah and Southlea Park allows most residents in those areas to use sawdust for cooking. Other residents have gone a step further to make sawdust stoves from bricks and mortar.
A general worker at the Mbudzi sawmill, Larrylee Mugwizi said demand for sawdust was high these days. Demand increases further during winter, when families look for cheap alternative sources of energy.
“The demand has actually gone up in the last six months as a result of load shedding and even lack of disposable incomes by some families to buy pre-paid electricity. “This place is usually swamped by mainly women and children, who pay US$1 to fill in a 50kg sack of the sawdust. Some actually take it elsewhere for resale, for $0,50 a bucket,” he said.
Mr Mugwizi, however, said his company does not make any profit from charging sawdust scavengers.
He said the nominal charge discourages stampeding for the sawdust. About 60 people visit the sawmill day each for the dust, either for personal use or re-sale. A regular buyer at the centre, Tererai Pliers from Glen View earns $40 on average daily from selling sawdust to residents from Hopley and Glen Norah suburbs.
“Ndakangofanana nemunhu ane Hiace yake paroad. Chete kuti angu machena, nekuti handina VID, kana porisi. (My earnings are as good as that of someone who owns a Toyota Hiace. The beauty of it is that I don’t pay anything like police or VID),” he said wheeling a pushcart laden with several bags of sawdust.
Sawdust burns best in a special constructed sawdust stove, which is simple to make and costs practically nothing. The fuel (sawdust) lights with a single match and one log in such a unit and keeps burning for periods of about six hours depending on the usage.
Emitting no smoke, no blowing and fanning, a five-litre container with heavily compressed sawdust can cook three meals in a day. Once lit, the container or the man-made stove burns until the saw dust loaded in the stove is consumed.
It can be refilled and re-kindled. The heat is so intense just like firewood that is used in preparing such meals as beans or knuckle bones. Agnes Munda (37) from Southlea Park says she has been using sawdust for three years and finds it cheaper.
An energy expert, Ms Trey Mukunde said the load shedding being experienced in Zimbabwe had forced residents to seek alternative sources of energy. He said provision of modern energy services – defined as household access to electricity and clean cooking facilities – is regarded as the tenet on which an acceptable standard of living is built.
“Without it, it becomes very difficult to access such basics as access to health and education,” he said. Climate change has seen communities without the basics such as energy, long considered being a human right, hence the provisional use of sawdust, by low income earners.
A number of countries are slowly moving towards alternative sources of energy and sawdust usage is growing across the globe. In Nigeria, a study carried out to compare cooking duration and specific fuel consumption between conventional paraffin (kerosene) and sawdust stove, revealed that it takes less time and fuel material with sawdust stove than with paraffin.
Malaysia has in the last five years been converting sawdust into charcoal, as the country moves towards harnessing alternative sources of energy for household use. The sawdust is dried before being processed in rotary dryers to bring down the moisture content from about 45 percent to about 5 percent. The sawdust which is eventually turned into briquettes is then carbonised and turned into charcoal for household use.