March 8, 2006

Drought hits Tanzanian fish sellers as ice runs out

By George Obulutsa

DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - The burning sun makes walking to
Dar es Salaam's fish market an intense experience -- the smell
hits you long before you get to the stalls where fish, bright,
giant shells and lobsters are piled onto tiled counters.

"Twelve thousand, 13,000, 15,000. Sold!" a fish seller
rattles out, quickly settling deals for a haul of kingfish and
red snapper.

The fishmongers working in the sweltering heat of
Tanzania's commercial capital say they are struggling to keep
their fish fresh because the cost of ice has shot up due to
power cuts blamed on one of the worst droughts to hit East
Africa in years.

Although rains have drenched some countries in the region
this week at the start of the long rainy season, forecasters
say the months-long drought that has put millions of people at
risk of hunger is not over yet.

Some analysts say the power cuts affecting countries like
Tanzania and Uganda, and threatening regional heavyweight
Kenya, could be the first sign of the drought's economic

In Tanzania, water levels at hydropower dams have fallen
drastically, resulting in daytime power cuts which now last 16
hours, up from 8.5 hours when the cuts were introduced last
month to conserve energy.

It makes the fishmongers' lives a misery.

"When there is a small supply of ice, we incur losses
because the fish spoil quickly," Ramadhani Kondo, 31, said as
he sorted lobster at his stall. "Five hours without ice and it
is all spoilt."


The state-run utility Tanzania Electric Supply Company
(TANESCO) invited bids in February for two gas-powered turbines
to boost production by an additional 100 megawatts (MW).

Tanzania's total generation capacity is 953 MW, of which
more than two-thirds is hydroelectric.

To plug the power shortfall, TANESCO also intends to rent
generators from outside the country. The International Monetary
Fund said Tanzania could use some of its debt relief money to
buy the generators and pay for the two turbines.

In a televised speech last month, President Jakaya Kikwete
said the drought had slashed hydropower capacity to close to 50
MW, out of a total capacity of 561 MW.

"The situation is not just bad, it is scary," he said.

Kikwete said that in the long term, Tanzania hoped to
generate more power from natural gas and coal - both available
in the country -- and to reduce its reliance on hydropower.

It wants to boost gas-powered generation by an additional
300 MW, and start generating another 200 MW from coal.

These plans offer little immediate comfort to the fish
traders who are forced to pay high prices for ice produced
using generators -- a luxury in one of the world's poorest

"There was a time when a block of ice cost 4,000 shillings.
Now it's going for as much as 15,000 shillings. I even heard
one seller mention 30,000 shillings," Faraji Abdalla said.


Power rationing has also affected other small businesses
like hair salons, Internet cafes and restaurants. And the
shortages have changed people's habits too.

"Customers don't come here frequently. When they come, they
don't buy that much fish because they don't have electricity at
home to preserve it," Abdalla said at the fish market.

"Many customers who would buy fish worth 50,000 shillings
or 60,000 shillings now buy for less than that and fry it
straight away for the day."

Whenever the power goes out in Dar es Salaam, generators
clatter into life. Sellers of the diesel-powered machines
report brisk business.

"Right now we are out of stock. We ordered more generators,
and they came in and were all snapped up," said Hamida Finanga,
a sales executive at Car and General in Dar es Salaam. She said
the company was rushing to import generators from abroad.

"We will have to raise prices soon as we are using air
freight to transport the generators. They arrive in about 10
days. By ship, it would take three or four months," she said.

For some wealthy customers, cost is not an issue.

"We have a waiting list, and some people are even willing
to pay in advance," Finanga said.

Back in the fish market, the sun is about to set, the
customers have gone home and Abdalla and Kondo are trying to
get rid of the fish they have left, selling them at rock-bottom
prices to the fried-fish sellers across the road.

"Business is very tough," Abdalla said.