When Hakainde Hichilema became Zambia’s president 14 months ago, he announced ambitious plans for the country’s mining sector. The new government, he said, would help mining firms increase copper production from 830,000 metric tonnes in 2021 to 3 million metric tonnes by 2031.

For more than 100 years, copper has been the mainstay of Zambia’s economy. The commodity accounts for more than 70% of the country’s export earnings. A key player in President Hichilema’s plans is Copperbelt Energy Corporation (CEC), a private utility that is the country’s second largest electricity company and the main supplier of power to the mines on the Copperbelt.

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As one of the success stories of Zambia’s late 1990s privatisation programme, CEC traces its roots back to the early 1950s when mining companies exploiting the Copperbelt’s mineral wealth established an electricity company to meet their growing power needs. 

CEC buys most of its power from the Zambian state utility Zesco. It resells that power to the mines, transmitting it via a distribution network of more than 1000km. Zesco leases CEC’s transmission lines to reach its retail and commercial customers on the Copperbelt. And as an active member of the Southern African Power Pool, CEC leases its network to Southern African Development Community regional utilities which are selling power to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

CEC is currently listed on the Lusaka Stock Exchange where its biggest shareholders include Singapore-based Affirma Capital, Dublin-based Zambia Energy Corporation Limited, and the Zambian government via ZCCM Investment Holdings. Last month, the company reported mid-year revenues of $182.3m, an increase of 12% on the year before. It also returned $50.4m to shareholders via its latest interim dividend payout, its largest to date.

Evolving energy ecosystem

Today, CEC demonstrates the role that private energy companies can play in Africa’s evolving energy ecosystem. The company sits at an important nexus of growing demand for power in central and southern Africa, the new Zambian government’s ambitious industrialisation plans, the green energy transition, and important energy sector reforms. 

“Zambia has relatively low energy infrastructure spending at the moment,” says CEC’s chief financial officer Mutale Mukuka. “As a country, we have to invest a lot of money in the transmission and distribution sub-sectors to ensure that we activate the much-required economic growth.” 

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The World Bank estimates that national access to electricity in Zambia averages out at 45% – approximately 82% in urban areas, and 14% in rural areas.

According to a 2021 report by Kearney, a consulting firm, investment allocations to African oil, gas, power, and coal over the next two decades would need to “reflect changing priorities and the most pressing development needs”. It suggests that 30% of all energy investments should go towards electricity transmission alone given the demands from rapid population growth and urbanisation. 

The Zambian government’s Integrated Resource Plan estimates that its ambitious industrialisation programme would push overall energy demand from 2143 megawatts (MW) in 2020 to 8000MW by 2030, rising further to 10,000MW by 2040, and requiring about $11bn in investment capital.  

“Funding of any energy infrastructure will be private sector-driven with any public involvement being by way of public-private partnerships,” says Sharon Sakuwaha, co-managing partner at Moira Mukuka Legal Practitioners, a Lusaka-based law firm. “I believe we are likely to see a draft public-private partnership bill in parliament soon that addresses the challenges within current PPP legislation.”

There is also widespread recognition that because of climate change and its effects on energy assets such as the Kariba Dam, Zambia cannot continue with its overreliance on hydropower which at present provides about 80% of its electricity. With changing rainfall patterns and the increased likelihood of drought, the country is susceptible to widespread power supply disruption.

Deepening dialogue

To resolve some of these challenges, government dialogue with the private sector has deepened over the years. Particular initiatives include the creation of the Office for Promoting Private Power Investment and the Public Private Dialogue Forum, which have resulted in updated legislation (the Energy Regulation Act of 2019 and the Electricity Act of 2019), renewable energy feed-in tariffs and, more recently, the possible introduction of net metering to the Zambian market. 

All the same, CEC is setting in motion ambitious investment plans to meet its growing customer needs.

“The business is seeing great growth prospects going into the future based on its strategic focus areas that include supplying expansionary and new demand by mine customers in all our markets, investing in new transmission and distribution capacity, and investing in renewable energy sources,” CEO Owen Silavwe said in a statement on August 26. 

Later this year, CEC will be commissioning its own 34MW solar photovoltaic facility in the Riverside residential area of Kitwe, Zambia’s second city. Work on a 66MW solar project will follow next year.

The company is also looking at DRC as an important pillar in its growing regional power trade strategy. Through its 50/50 joint venture with SNEL, the country’s state utility, CEC netted $85.6m in 2021, up 11.6% on the previous year.

DRC is one of Africa’s largest countries. For Zambian businesses, it is therefore an important market. In April this year, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding committing “to identify opportunities and facilitate investments to increase Africa’s share in the value chain of batteries, electric vehicles and renewable energies”. Together, they hold significant deposits of lithium and cobalt, key components in the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries. The yet-to-be-created DRC-Zambia Battery Council will have an executive committee composed of the two presidents and senior representatives from United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the African Export-Import Bank. 

While CEC looks ahead with renewed optimism, recent challenges serve as a reminder of some of the risks associated with working in such a politically sensitive sector. 

In 2020, the company faced a series of existential threats including the delay by the previous government to renew its 20-year bulk supply agreement with Zesco, the state appropriation of its distribution and transmission lines, and the non-payment of more than $170m by its largest customer, Konkola Copper Mines, a Vedanta Resources subsidiary. 

Today, the commodity boom is breathing new life into the Zambian mining sector and CEC is gearing up to capitalise on it. Whether this helps Zambia close the electricity access gap that hampers broad-based economic growth remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in the October/November 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.