Economists, investment advisors, the South African Reserve Bank, Statistics SA, market commentators and the general public all bemoan the impact of load shedding on the economy.
The difficulties in trying to operate without electricity for hours on end, day after day, can only be appreciated when talking to business owners about their experiences.
The new generation of work-from-home employees – whether doing administration, rendering financial services or teaching online – are forced to spend thousands on some sort of backup system to be able to operate during office hours, while hoping their internet providers have reliable backup systems in place to ensure connectivity. After all, employers and clients still expect service during office hours.
In some cases, a few thousand rand for a battery, charger and inverter will be sufficient. In other, the cost runs into hundreds of thousands.
It is obvious that some businesses are affected more than others by the continuing and worsening power situation. Whether big or small, businesses that use power-hungry machines struggle.
Often touted as the solution to SA’s unemployment crisis, smaller businesses take a lot of strain.
Visits to various enterprises gave Moneyweb insights into the challenges experienced by owners – mostly sole proprietors – and the plans they must make to cope with load shedding.
Interestingly, every one of the business owners said the same thing: “Everybody has become used to load shedding. It should not be like this.”
A laundromat is obviously heavily reliant on electricity to run those nice big washing machines and tumble dryers – and they stand dead quiet when there is no power.
“Load shedding is having a huge impact on my business,” says Celia Steenberg, owner of The Laundromat, the only laundry serving the people and guest houses in Wilderness.
“We can do around 36 loads of washing per day if there is no load shedding. We can only do 24 loads if the power is off for two hours during the day,” she says.
“It is absolutely chaos when the power goes off twice during the day for two hours at a time. I often have to simply close up early.”
Her machines use three-phase power and a generator is simply not an option – besides which, there isn’t enough space to install a one.
She had to buy two additional dryers so she could get the work done when electricity is available. The machines cost about R45 000 each.
“Electricity interruptions and power surges when it comes on again seem to damage the equipment too,” she says. “I am paying much more on maintenance lately.”
Meanwhile, overhead costs remain. Rent, insurance, rates and taxes and even salaries are unchanged. Ironically, the municipality’s electricity availability charge remains unchanged, even if electricity is not available.
“I cannot penalise my staff if they work two hours less or if I send them home early when electricity goes off late afternoon,” says Steenberg.
“My staff are fantastic and come in early and work late when required. But I can only ask so much from them. I also need to pay them overtime for working outside of normal working hours.”
She or her husband are often seen late at night and in the early hours of the morning finishing the washing.
She changed the sign in her window from ‘Same day service’ to ‘We apologise for the inconvenience’.
“It is incomprehensible that it has reached the stage where people have become used to load shedding,” she says.
The Blind Pig
“I do not envy anybody who is planning to start a restaurant now,” says Clint Croft, owner of The Blind Pig Restaurant.
“The first thing an entrepreneur must put into their business plan now is how they are going to cope with load shedding,” he says.
“It should not be like this. The minimum a business needs to operate is water and electricity.
“That is not asking a lot,” he adds, saying that a meeting the previous night between business owners, local councillors and the municipality was meaningless.
He mentions an important fact: “Load shedding has been around for the last 10 or 15 years. It was happening when I first started the business, but has become much worse.
“Luckily, I started off with gas appliances in the kitchen and can serve most of the meals on my menu. The reason is that we adjusted our menu regularly to take into account worsening load shedding.
“But it still affects the restaurant. We need electricity for some of the kitchen equipment, such as the coffee machine or an electric kettle.
“We have a generator, but generators make a lot of noise. A portion of the outside terrace simply cannot be used at all and some customers have been complaining about the noise.
“I lose about 10% of my seating area when I run the generator,” says Croft, “but I pay rent for every square metre.”
The Blind Pig has quite a big generator, producing seven kilovolt-amps (Kva). It cost R15 000, with another R15 000 to lay a cable underneath the patio paving and the cost of an electrician to connect it to the electrical distribution board to comply with regulations.
Croft estimates the cost of running the generator to keep beer in half the fridges chilled is around R200 per hour. The other fridges and cold room cannot be used.
“I lose business during load shedding. People want to go out and enjoy the ‘hum’ of a restaurant with background music and sport on the TV, not a silent and dark room or a noisy generator,” he says.
Business owners note that the impact of worsening load shedding comes at a time when they are still recovering from the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, which closed down their businesses for weeks on end.
Cal Oliphant, owner of Lavender Breeze Hair Studio, says she is still struggling to recover from the impact of the pandemic – and is now losing customers due to load shedding.
Her small salon only uses handheld hair dryers, but they consume a lot of power. Each one needs between 1 900 and 2 400 watts, according to their labels. Oliphant would need a fairly big generator, and has no space for one.
Plus: “I cannot afford a generator. I considered it, but I would have to spend R10 000. I cannot afford it.”
Without load shedding, Lavender Breeze can help about 12 customers a day. “It falls to as little as five or six on days with load shedding, because it is difficult to try to juggle different treatments,” she says.
That’s not all.
Whenever the electricity goes off, the cellphone network starts to fail after an hour or so – smaller businesses that rely on cellular-based card machines cannot process debit and credit card payments.
Oliphant also commented on the fact that people are accepting load shedding as ‘normal’.
“It is wrong,” she says.
Everyone is affected …
Similar sentiments are shared by other small business owners.
The owner of the neighbourhood copy shop, which also prints and distributes the local newsletter, says she invested R300 000 in an inverter and batteries to power her big laser printer and other machines, and to keep it safe from power surges.
Carpenters, panel beaters and metal workshops all come to a standstill.
The machine the local coffee shop uses to make cappuccinos becomes useless and tables stand empty.
Small manufacturing businesses, making anything from ceiling cornices to bread, all work at odd hours during the night.
Meanwhile, government continues to brag how it is championing the cause for small businesses and how important the small business sector is to create new jobs.
Read: No end in sight as load shedding nightmare worsens