A two kilometre stretch of Ridgeway North street in Harare’s leafy suburb – Borrowdale has an unusual hive of activity on Saturday morning. 

The road is barricaded. On one end of the stretch, a troupe of dancers can be seen following moves being demonstrated by a fitness instructor. 

On the other far end, artists are painting murals on the walls of a school along the street. The murals depict messages about caring for the environment.  

Children of various ages, from toddlers to adolescents are also cycling and skating along the stretch. 

The cars have been asked to stay away and the streets of Ridgeway North are buzzing with happy young people. Photo: Sharon Munjenjema/RLS Southern Africa

The usual stench of car exhaust fumes is strikingly absent from the atmosphere, as there are no vehicles in site. 

This is what an Open Streets Day in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, looks like.  

Individuals as well as small businesses and organisations have also erected stands exhibiting various products and services that passers-by are admiring. 

Young people painting murals on 'Carless Harare" day. Photo: Sharon Munjenjema/RLS Southern Africa

Occasionally people stop at a booth where various indigenous tree species are displayed. At the booth, Sergio Tagwireyi (43), an environmentalist is sharing his knowledge about the importance of planting more indigenous trees.

Tagwireyi is a co-founder of a community organisation called Trees Knowers and Growers Association, whose work centres around encouraging communities to grow more indigenous trees as there are more resistant to the vagaries of climate change. 

As this reporter approaches Tagwireyi, he places a tree seedling down and begins to share his story. 

Tagwirei believes open street days are not only great for the environment, but are a first step towards attaining a green transport system. 

“Carless streets make people relax. We are used to cars and all these vehicles that use fuels but they affect our health. 

“Days like these make people realise that we can survive without these things (cars) and lead even happier and healthier lives,” he says.

Enjoying the carless streets. Photo: Sharon Munjenjema/RLS Southern Africa

Apart from the need for cleaner air, this desire for less vehicles on the streets of Harare is also being fuelled by residents’ frustration from traffic congestion.

Tagwireyi resides in a Harare suburb called Mbare, and often commutes for work to Monavale, Epworth and Chitungwiza. 

These places are all less than a 23 kilometre distance from his home and should normally take 40 minutes at most to travel. But it often takes him several hours because of traffic congestion in Harare. 

“I spend four to five ours travelling to our nurseries which are distances that should take less time. 

“Congestion is a big problem here. Sometimes you even travel faster with a bike than a person with a car because of congestion. Moving towards bikes and non-fuel vehicles is a reality,” he says. 

Harare’s road network was built in a star format back in the late 1890’s. This means that all major roads pass through the city centre (the central business district) before continuing on their way. This causes a lot of traffic congestion. 

With population growth and rural to urban migration over the years, the capital has become over crowded by people and vehicles. 

Zimbabwe now has about 1.5 million registered vehicles, with the largest concentration being in the capital where around 3.2 million people reside. 

Harare traffic. Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli.

Fossil-fuel powered vehicle population in the country has become a concern following a 2015 finding that the transport sector a significant contributor to green gas emissions in Zimbabwe at 22 percent, with emissions expected to rise going forward as demand for vehicles increase. 

Authorities in Harare say they are working on a tight budget, but are trying to introduce more traffic routes to ease congestion.  

“We have a program where we want to expand some of the roads. Harare was planned so many years ago, since then we have not managed to expand most of the roads or even to come up with new roads.

“We are also in the process of coming up with roads that bypass the city centre. And we are also encouraging (construction of) more shopping centres outside the CBD,” Harare’s Acting City Planner Judith Mujegu told Climate Justice Central. 

Harare registers new cars every day. The city is now exploring ways to decongest the city. Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli.

The city has also started to explore the open streets concept, in a bid to encourage the city residents to embrace non-motor vehicles. 

The Open Streets concept has been adopted by many countries worldwide, but in Zimbabwe it is still in its infancy. 

Harare City Council held its first Open Street Day in December 2022 and the residents’ turnout was very low. 

The second one held recently, attracted a much larger crowd of people of all ages.

“Our aim is to have a permanent open street in every suburb in Harare. We are in the process of trying to introduce non-motorised transport system, this is what we call active mobility and cycling is part of it.,” Mujegu said. 

“When you cycle, you will be exercising, you don’t use fuel, you don’t produce any gases detrimental to the environment. By introducing cycling, skating we are trying to protect the environment.”

The Zimbabwean government has begun exploring the possibility of transition from fuel vehicles.

Zimbabwe’s energy and power development ministry permanent secretary Dr Gloria Magombo told Climate Justice Central that the transition will happen ‘at Zimbabwe’s own pace’

“We have started working on the e-mobility policy, where we are looking at options to use electricity for transport. But remember we are already in a deficit in terms of electricity so what we are looking at is green e-mobility. 

“We are encouraging those who already have electric vehicles to use solar or other renewable options for recharging,” said Dr Magombo. 

She said the green transition could be faster if countries like Zimbabwe had access to low cost financing. 

“We need access to long term low cost financing which we have not been receiving from the international world over the years. If you look at sub Saharan Africa as a whole over the last 10 years we have only received about 2 percent of the international funds which have been invested in renewables,” said Dr Magombo.

Zimbabwe is currently finalising an electric mobility policy that is expected to be public soon.

Climate change expert Tapiwa Kamuruko also believes that what Zimbabwe lacks is not the know-how but the financial capacity to go green in the transport sector.

“The country has already piloted electric vehicles in three cities but another challenge one can argue is that charging the vehicles means tapping into the grid electricity which is carbon intensive.
“The charging systems should be solar based given the wealth of sunlight Zimbabwe has. The main challenge is in financing,” he said.  

Zimbabwe plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent per capita across the economy by 2030 and the transport sector is expected to contribute to this.

The country was ranked very high in the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, in the top three in southern Africa, and is doing its part in the fight against climate change.

While authorities may see a transition to non-fossil fuel powered vehicles as the most climate friendly transport solution, for people like Tagwireyi more electric cars on the streets of Harare will not solve the problem of traffic congestion. 

If Zimbabwe’s green transition happens swiftly, perhaps in 20 years’ time, electric cars will be roaming the streets of Harare with no smell of exhaust fumes in the air. But Tagwirei will likely be on the cycle track still happily riding his bike going around the city, planting more indigenous trees!