4 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Zesa Pre-Paid Metering No Magic Bullet

AFTER many years of persistently crying foul for being ripped off by Zesa's estimation-based billing system, many residents countrywide have finally heaved a sigh of relief after the power utility's on-going installation of pre-paid meters.

Zesa had for years been short-changing hard-pressed consumers by sending them estimated bills resulting in residents paying inflated bills despite intermittent power cuts that occasionally stretched for days or weeks in some areas.

Consumers also complained Zesa bills were frequently late, making it difficult to budget for power consumption.

Last year the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC), a subsidiary of Zesa Holdings, embarked on wholesale replacement of all conventional post-paid meters with pre-paid meters.

The project involves the migration of about 600 000 domestic and small business customers from credit metering to pre-paid or "smart metering" over a 10- month period.

As of December 2012, about 23 000 meters had been installed in Harare and Bulawayo.

The new meters have been installed in the Avenues area, Mabelreign, the new Willowvale Flats in Highfield and Belvedere, while in Bulawayo they have been installed in Emganwini, Paddonhurst and Mahatshula.

Other areas earmarked for deployment of pre-paid meters are Chitungwiza, Gweru, Kwekwe, Mutare, Masvingo, Chinhoyi, Bindura, Kadoma and Marondera.

Residents have widely applauded the project, saying they are relieved to have the freedom to manage their electricity bills by paying for actual consumption.

ZETDC commercial director Enock Ncube said the initiative has given the utility the capacity to deliver on its main role of facilitating the improvement of availability of electricity to the populace, as well as the attainment of self-sufficiency in electricity generation.

Ncube said: "The utility is a key enabler of the country's economic recovery under the new Medium Term Policy, and as such introduction of pre-payment meters to customers is one of the key pillars to achieve business excellence and turn around service delivery in the short and long-term."

According to Zesa officials, the pre-paid tariff is lower than the metered tariff as it eliminates meter reading, billing and postage costs.

The officials added that electricity debt on the post-paid account would be transferred to the new pre-paid account, meaning 20% of pre-paid electricity purchase would go towards clearing the consumer's debt.

Although the pre-paid meters have proved popular with residents who can now budget how much they want to spend on electricity, there are fears installation of the meters does not address the problem of cost since Zesa still owes millions of US dollars in power imports, or the availability of power in the country. Zesa produces about 1 200MW of electricity against a national demand of 2 200MW.

Installation of pre-paid meters may also result in poor households and essential service providers such as clinics and hospitals finding themselves without power after failing to buy electricity since the meters have turned power into a cash commodity.

Most essential service providers depend on government and donor funding, meaning they can only settle their bills after funding has been secured. The pre-paid meter system does not make an allowance for most essential services being plunged into darkness for far longer periods compared to the power cuts era as electricity would only be restored after topping up.

Electricity tariffs are likely to go up due to the wholesale installation of pre-paid meters given that power has to be purchased from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, analysts said.

"It appears as though government has decided to pass on the cost (of power imports) to the user without democratically explaining affordability of the important energy source for many urban households and industries," said an analyst who requested anonymity.

"It's a decision to privatise electricity to allow Zesa to pass on the cost to the consumer at unreasonable rates, while at the same time claiming to be efficient."

Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association co-ordinator Rodrick Fayayo applauded the pre-paid system for doing away with the discredited estimate billing system.

"The relief that came with that project is that it has dealt with the problem of estimate billing," said Fayayo. "However, electricity will now be turned into a commercial service rather than a basic right. If you don't have money then you don't have electricity. In Bulawayo, there are many residents who are elderly and child-headed households which cannot afford to buy electricity. What happens to them? What is Zesa's plan for them? I think Zesa did not fully prepare for this initiative and had selfish reasons."

Consumer Council of Zimbabwe executive director Rosemary Siyachitema said although her organisation was at the forefront of pushing for pre-paid meters, it was yet to do a proper assessment of Zesa's initiatives from a consumer perspective.

"We have not done an assessment yet of the progress so far over the pre-paid meters from a consumer point of view," Siyachitema said. "This is something we plan to do mid-year."

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