A joint effort by City of Harare’s (CoH) Fire Brigade, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) and Environmental Management Agency (EMA) to shutdown the illegal gas trade has resulted in many traders moving to conduct their business in secret.
As the supply of electricity from ZESA becomes ever more unreliable, gas has become a favourite alternative energy source in households for heating and cooking. Subsequently, illegal traders have proliferated across the city. Most of them haveset up temporary work stations on street corners, though a few operate at rented facilities, mostly at car sales and garages. Concern about the safety of such activity has driven authorities to act.
CoH public relations manager Michael Chideme says, “Illegal gas trading has mushroomed within the city, mostly in the high density suburbs. These unsafe operations pose a risk to residents in case of a fire outbreak.” He said that the joint operation is being conducted in order to bring sanity to the gas industry. The action has closed down some suppliers.
Chideme said that while gas wholesalers have been quick to regularise their operations, many retailers have lagged behind. “Out of the 30 retailers closed down, only eight managed to regularise. While out of a total of seven wholesalers only one failed to regularise,” he revealed.
A local gas trader who preferred anonymity said, “Licensing fees imposed by authorities are too high considering our very low profit margins.” To avoid detection, he has removed advertising from his work space.“Only my regular customers and those who hear about my business through word of mouth are coming to buy gas,” he explained.
Council, through the Fire Brigade, charges annual fees to retailers of $800 for storage only, $100 for each dispensing nozzle plus 15% value added tax (VAT). Wholesalers are charged $2,000 for bulk storage, $100 for each dispensing nozzle in addition to 15% VAT. Traders caught operating without a license face a $300 penalty.
Another trader (also choosing to remain nameless) who operates in the CBD said of the safety equipment costs, “Even if one sacrifices to pay the licensing fees, there are also fire department requirements which are expensive to meet.”
Gas sellers must construct a sturdy blast cage to exacting specifications using 25–50 mm angle iron bars and screens. The cage, according to Chideme who cited the law, must be sited “away from activity with potential to generate fire, sparks, static electricity, places of public assembly and high risk manufacturing purposes.” In addition, signage indicating no smoking or naked lights and fire point indicators must be visible, and two 9 litre water type fire extinguishers installed.
For bulk traders, tanks are to be erected in accordance with the Standard Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ)341 of 1972. “Tanks are supposed to be covered by a drencher system throughout, fed from municipal mains plus a supplementary water reservoir with an electric pump backed up by a diesel pump,” added Chideme. “Tanks are to be firmly secured to the ground by bolts or straps.”
He said a filling shed should be constructed with adequate ventilation and barriers must be constructed around the shed. The site must have separate ‘In’ and ‘Out’ for traffic, while an approved type of fire extinguisher is to be installed.
The trader Harare News spoke to in the CBD said that gas vending is her family’s sole source of income. “I’m not going to give it up because the government wants me to stop. It’s not like I’m stealing from someone. My business is really fair trade.
“High licensing fees on everything means the wealthy will keep on getting rich as they are the ones who can afford to set up businesses to government standards while us, the poor, will keep on toiling in our poverty,” she bemoaned.
These sentiments were also echoed by other vendors.