GOVERNANCE : Ripple effect of fuel price hike in Zimbabwe

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By Ray Matikinye

TREMENDOUS success achieved over time to keep the lid on high birth rates in Zimbabwe is likely to come undone by the most unusual of causes.

Seemingly enduring fuel shortages characterised by tortuous queues at petrol stations owing to crippling foreign currency scarcity, which resulted in steep price hikes in petroleum product prices has spread its tentacles even to those that do not own cars.

The price hike in petroleum products has affected social life with a possible impact on the country’s human ecology as well.

When a newly-wed pregnant bride’s father offered the couple a television set as a wedding gift the bride and groom turned the offer down.

But on seeing his daughter with the unmistakable bulge again five months after the birth of his first grandson, the father asked his daughter: “Are you sure you do not need the television set I offered you as a gift?”

This time she accepted it.

The rather ticklish quip underscores one of the challenges families that lack some form of evening entertainment face in trying to limit the size of their families.

High birth-rates among poor families in urban and especially rural centres have been linked to a lack of evening entertainment which forces them to retire to bed early. Thus the habit forced on these families by economic circumstances, prompts a high incidence of unplanned pregnancies, even when the use of contraceptives does much to alleviate the problem.

In the absence of luxuries such as television sets to entertain themselves, low income families stay up late discussing events of the day provided there is light.

Not anymore.

The price of fuel, especially kerosene has been hiked as in January Zimbabwe raised petroleum prices by about 150 percent – thought to be the highest in the world – when its fiat currency – (the RTGS$ short for Real Tike Gross Settlement Dollar) failed to keep pace with the US dollar value on which it was pegged at parity rate by the Central Bank. The price increases triggered a nationwide work boycott and riots in protest codenamed #Shutdown Zimbabwe, as the spike had serious ripple effects on

prices of basic commodities for ordinary people when businesses passed on the additional cost to consumers.

The fuel price spike from US$0.60 to US$1.17 means poor families would have to spend longer hours in bed to conserve illuminating fuel stocks in order to stretch them a little bit longer.

Praiseworthy efforts by the government to reduce the high birth rate conservatively estimated at about 3.4 percent each year according to the UN World Population could be whittled away as the majority of rural folk and a larger portion of the urban poor in the low income bracket who depend on kerosene for lighting try to lessen the impact of fuel costs.

People will be forced to stay up shorter and sleep longer. They also have to be strong-willed to resist the temptation to make more babies.

Zimbabwe has an ambitious rural electrification programme meant partly to modernise rural areas and to conserve dwindling forests, which provide fuel wood for rural communities. This programme has been augmented by a bio-gas research and development programme using fermented cow-dung.

Initial studies have indicated that the budding bio-gas programme could be used to provide fuel both for cooking, lighting purposes and save rural communities from the looming nightmare of trudging longer distances in search of firewood as forests recede further and further from homes and villages owing to rampant deforestation.

The national project needs to gird itself to win the race against deforestation as more and more people turn to the forests for fuel wood for both lighting and cooking.

In order for the rural electrification programme to achieve success, a systematic and linear settlement pattern is essential to cut electrification costs because in most cases rural hamlets are scattered haphazardly about.

Bringing power and light to each rural home will be a daunting financial task and appears to be a pipe dream before each rural peasant can cheaply switch on power and light up their home.

Each evening when dusks creeps over Titus Gorosviba’s modest homestead in rural Chivi, in Masvingo Province, south east of the capital Harare, he invariably casts his eyes towards overhead transmission cables that stretch a stone’s throw away over his cluster of huts as they relay overhead to a trading station more than 5km away.

Gorosviba wishes he could raise the US$700 contribution to the village committee for treated poles and cables needed by the rural electrification programme to reticulate power to his home.

“We grope in the dark when our kerosene stocks or candles run out compelling us to retire to bed early while electricity power cables pass my home by a stone’s throw away. Our committee is trying its best but some of members like me are so cash-strapped they can hardly raise the amount needed for electricity to be directed to our hamlets,” Gorosviba bemoans.

He wishes government could step in and come up with a more tractable payment plan.

Corporate Affairs and Marketing Executive for the Zimbabwe Rural Electrification Agency (REA), Johannes Nyamayedenga says the subject of household energy is crucial particularly in rural areas where the poor majority live.

Government enacted legislation which levies urban electricity consumers a nominal six percent fee on monthly consumption billed by the country’s power utility supplier Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), to partly fund its rural electrification programme.

“Although governments in emerging economies make every effort to alleviate household energy crises when formulating policies, they fall short in their efforts to redress the situation due to economic considerations,” Nyamayedenga said.

And it is economic considerations that forced Zimbabwe’s government to raise fuel prices.

Undoubtedly, the decision to raise fuel prices apart from the falling value of the local currency against the US dollar was influenced by escalating freight and transport charges to import petroleum products, which require scarce hard currency.

Thus, the price increase that put the cost of illuminating fuel beyond the means of the poor became inevitable.

Zimbabwe realises that if it continues to rely on fuel wood to supply a large portion of household energy requirements of people in rural areas and the urban poor it would become more costly to initiate further measures to roll back deforestation that has left most of rural Zimbabwe bald.

For instance, a rural family without illuminating fuel resorts to lighting a fire either inside or outside the homestead to provide the needed light, burning logs procured through tree felling, thus worsening deforestation that supplements vagaries of climate change. While recognising the need to explore alternative fuel sources to cater for under-resourced families the recent price increase appears to contradict

intentions to alleviate challenges confronting low-income families in times of rising living costs.

There is, however, no empirical data to prove by what percentage birthrates increase, as families are forced to retire to bed early. But the humorous television gift anecdote serves to illustrate a link even among middle income families.

Neither is precise national data available of the environmental damage caused by rural deforestation as inhabitants exploit natural resources for survival.

Thus, the challenges compound: high birth rates and rampant deforestation resulting from the price increase of an essential basic commodity such as kerosene. Such increases extend the poverty among low income families who are supposed to be the main targets of government efforts to raise living standards.

In Zimbabwe, illuminating fuel is less costly for the poor urban families than for their rural counterparts. The rural peasant accesses his supplies from a local shopkeeper who has a hang for immoderate price mark-ups on grounds that he is recouping transport costs from the urban wholesale where he procures his stock, much to the rural peasant’s chagrin.

Few rural peasants have regular incomes and invariably have to put up with inflated prices or go without illuminating fuel. In their poverty, they turn to receding forests for fuel wood as a last resort.

Without subsidies for kerosene, the poor will probably have to endure the agony of an ever expanding family they can ill-afford to maintain.