Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

Ethiopia: Unified Utility Billing System Creates Havoc in Addis

Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD), Minister of Information & Communication Technology, was the first to use the system his Ministry has been working hard to implement for the past two years. He payed his 116.33 Br water bill, at a Lehulu Centre, near Sidist Killo'sYaredMusicSchool.

Ease, convenience and while paying bills was the primary selling point of the Unified Billing System (UBS), which was launched this week. It was a way to kill three birds with one stone, processing the electricity, water and telephone bills of customers in one place at any of the 31 centres, called Lehulu, around the City.

The situation was to the contrary however, for Asamenech Zewdu and countless others who came to pay their bills using the new system at various centres last week.

One of the Lehulu bill payment centres, located inside an ethio-telecom branch office onFitawrari Habtegiorgis Street, was swarmed with people both in and out of the compound when Fortune visited last Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

Almost all of those queued in the long line, most with shawls or hats over their head to find some respite against the burning sun, could be heard grumbling about standing there for hours.

Some, like Asamenech had been coming since Monday, most of the time giving up and leaving after queuing for up to six hours. Having been unlucky three days in a row, Asamenech was determined to get her bills paid on Thursday afternoon.

Though she does not know her exact age, Asamenech guesses it is around 70.

"I am old, my knees are weak, and I should not have to go through such a hassle" she told Fortune.

When Fortune found her, the elderly lady was sitting on the stairs, after having someone else hold a place for her in the cue. During the long wait she witnessed many fights breaking out over queue places and many purses being stolen.

"It is really inconvenient, something should be done about accommodating the elderly and tightening up on security," she complained.

Previously, Asamenech used to pay her water, phone and electricity bills near her wereda, in Addis Ketema District.

Asamenech claims that it did not take her more than 30 minutes to pay each bill, if she went on schedule.

Even now it is because her electricity bills were due on February 06, 2013 that she came to her nearby Lehulu centre.

"I heard through the media that from now on, all bills will be paid at one place, and I came here," she told Fortune.

"I don't mind that all of the bills are grouped into one, but people should be limited to paying at one centre only within their districts or weredas."

The way the current system is set up customers could come from anywhere and pay at Lehulu centres. That was what the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT) first envisioned when launching the Unified Billing System (UBS); which it viewed as a 'pay anywhere anytime' service.

After two years of preparation, where it hired Global Computing Solutions (GCS) to run the system in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) in June 2011, and jointly made an investment of around 102 million Br, it began providing services last week.

Despite being launched with high hopes the system was bogged with chaos starting from Monday as droves flocked to pay their bills. Almaz Andarge, was one of the many left frustrated by Lehulu's services as she has been coming to the centre for four days without getting service.

Kifiya Techonologies, the operational arm of GCS, is in charge of running the 31 Lehulu centres and providing service to 1.1 million bill paying customers. It transfers all funds to the government after taking a fee of 2.54 Br for each service. The partnership will end after three years, in which time the government can decide to operate UBS itself or outsource the service to other private companies including GCS.

In a joint press conference conducted by all three utility company heads, Debretsion Gebremicheal, Minister of MCIT and Munir Duri, CEO of Kifiya, announced that the system was ready to give fast and reliable services.

An additional 10 centres will be added to the 31 in Addis Abeba and the system will slowly be launched in four regional towns through 15 service centres, it was stated then.

"From now on a person who lives in Bole area can pay his bills in Merkato, if it is convenient" Debretsion stated at the press conference.

But this fact is now creating traffic at Lehulu centres, those accessing the service think.

Operators also complain that the centres are overcrowded.

"Too many people are coming here when they could go to centres in Teklehaimanot and Shegole," Dagmawit Tserse, centre manager at Addis Ketema's Lehulu branch told Fortune.

All first time payers have to register in order to get an ID number which requires processing a lot of documents which takes time, she stated.

These are problems that will improve with time, already we are processing data for around 3,000 people daily, Dagmawit added. The centres each have 11 counters, three seating benches that could hold six people, an accountant and a centre manger.

Although once people have a chance to get inside, their documents are being processed fast, there are those that are being turned away after being told that their documents have not yet been sent from the utility companies.

That was what happened to Derebe Tsega, 32, who was trying to pay his utility bills at the centre before his February 7 deadline.

He had come on Wednesday afternoon and stayed overnight in order to have his bills processed. He got his chance in the afternoon on Thursday but was told to come back after 10 days.

"Most of the bill payment deadlines have been extended by five or 10 days and I was told that sometimes data may not reach the centre until the extended deadline period begins," he told Fortune.

There are also those that take queue even though it is not yet time to pay their bills grumbles Sefefe Shalomo. "They hear on the mass media that registration is for everybody and now they are over crowding the centres."

Although Sefefe was there, according to his scheduled payment he had yet to process his bills and is already disgruntled.

"The system is yet to be properly orgainised, and it needs to accommodate customers step by step instead of inviting all customers at once" he told Fortune.

Noting the problem, utility companies have announced that nobody would be penalised for not paying on time during the next month until things get off the ground.

Operators at Kifiya have also stated that they will work on the scheduling to ease overcrowding and make Lehulu a place where all can get satisfactory service.

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