ITS 13:55, and Nigel Mavhengere’s “street office” is set up: laptop, makeshift cardboard table and a portable 75-watt solar panel. He’s selling pirated music and installing mobile phone applications, such as WhatsApp, for some of Zimbabwe’s 4.2 million smartphone users.
“Business is bad today,” complains the 21-year old, who works on the pavement of a busy, vendor-strewn area in downtown Harare. “On a good day, I should have sold at least $15 worth of stuff by now.”
A lack of formal jobs in Zimbabwe has forced many young Zimbabweans like Mavhengere into finding alternative work. Many have flocked to neighbouring South Africa in search of jobs, while others have become entrepreneurs, some engaging in illegal activities such as selling drugs.
But a few of those remaining at home have found a particularly thriving new career: Solar piracy.
Using laptops connected to small solar panels the size of an A5 notebook, youths now litter the streets of central Harare selling pirated music and games and (legal) installation help for WhatsApp on their Bluetooth connections. Ten songs cost $1 and WhatsApp $2.
The salesmen connect their computers to their $25 panels using car power adaptors, providing direct power from the sun. With inbuilt batteries, the solar packs can also provide power for a time when the sun isn’t shining.
“Solar is convenient for us because we operate on the streets where there is no power,” said Mavhengere, who has been unable to find a job for two years since finishing his secondary school certificate.
“There [on the streets]we have the sun, for free. Also, the panel is small, making it easy to carry,” he said.
Most laptop computers consume not more than 65 watts of power, said Norbert Nziramasanga, an electronics engineer and former director of the Southern Centre for Energy and Environment in Harare.
The size of Mavhengere’s solar panel will give him just over an hour of power when not using direct sunlight, Nziramasanga said.
Zimbabwe has struggled with power shortages for 15 years, and is now looking to solar and hydropower to make up the gap. The country’s power utility, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) says it is able to meet only 50% of the current 2 200 megawatts demand due to frequent breakdowns of aging equipment.
Gloria Magombo, the chief executive at the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that Zimbabwe targets adding 300 megawatts of grid solar power within the next two years.
Feasibility studies for the $700m joint venture between Zimbabwe and China have already begun, according to the power and energy ministry.
Magombo said solar energy is used by only 18% of Zimbabweans, so could see big growth, but she fears that growth could also lead to a surge in poor quality solar devices.
ZERA later this year will enact new regulations and establish a $100 000 solar testing laboratory to guard against “counterfeit PV (photovoltaic) panels, batteries, charge controllers and inverters,” she said.
Off-grid solar panels are already lighting up many homes in urban and rural areas, and creating new businesses on the streets.
Mavhengere said his biggest threat comes from the police, who sometimes temporarily confiscate his work tools on charges of illegal vending and piracy. But “when business is good, I sometimes take home $40 a day,” he said.
He hopes one day his experience with computers and solar power will help him forge a career in information and communications technology (ICT).
Zimbabwe’s universities turn out 10 000 graduates each year, and 90 000 students finish their secondary school certificates yearly, but few of them have much chance at finding the kind of work they trained for, or in some cases any work at all, experts say.
What constitutes piracy in Mavhengere’s business are the music sales – not the sales of mobile applications, experts say.
“The apps are for free anyway, so you can’t be pirating free stuff. In fact, they are charging the technical know-how of installing the apps,” said Tonderai Rutsito, a technology writer at TechnoMag, an online magazine.