The power distribution company Umeme has lately come under widespread criticism over a range of issues - from its treatment of customers to billing and payment platforms.
Alon Mwesigwa asked Umeme Head of Communications Henry Rugamba what was going on. Excerpts.
Why are you forcing people to install pre-paid metres (Yaka), which should be optional?
I wouldn't say forcing is the fair word to use. We began the Yaka programme in 2011 as a pilot. Under that pilot phase, [we are] rolling it into other parts of Kampala. Yaka gives a customer full control of their consumption, and some who were converted in early 2011, and even recently, many will tell you that they have experienced better management of the cost of power.
They appreciated the fact that they haven'texperienced a guy visiting them, bringing them a bill or reading their metre and somebody disconnecting them. When you say some people have complained, I can also give you very many who would also extend a lot of appreciation at the conversion to this technology.
However, in converting an area, why we are compelling people to install, we want to be able to manage the area and clearly say we have finished this area. If you live in a post-paid area, you receive three visits a month - which to me I think is inconveniencing. In areas we have converted, we don't have to visit you at all.
It's a question of embracing technology.
Who is supposed or not supposed to install Yaka? It seems you are dictating to whoever you meet.
If you think about it or remember in the budget speech of the minister of Finance, she said: "we have set Umeme a target of 15,000 pre-paid metres to be installed." But we have hit 42,000. We are [not] dictating to the public. It's a whole strategy of better power consumption.
Which brings me to the legal question: the grid code under which we are governed presupposes post-paid electricity supply, but it does also say that consumers of electricity can use a metre provided by the supply. It does not specify pre-paid or post-paid. However, as we plan to go national by 2018, the appropriate legal framework will be in place.
How long does it take you to harmonise your mobile money platform with the customer's account?
Twenty-four hours and we are working to bring that down. Now, what happens when you pay by mobile money, you get a message notification with a reference number and confirmation of the payment.
Where we have to improve our system is in event when you pay at 4 o'clock in the evening - while we give you a notification, it may not hit our system until the following day. While you have received an acknowledgement, your local office may print out debts or unpaid accounts and our men may visit you, but if you tell them the truth that you paid, you may not be on the list [after 24hrs] - our system could have picked it.
The delay is about the challenges of adopting technology and we will get over it.
How much control do you have over your sub-contractors - given the arrogance, corruption, and the 'I don't care attitude' they approach customers with?
We don't have enough and we have to do a lot more. On 8th of November, we are issuing them a new code of conduct which they will have to adhere to. It will dictate our minimum standards of conduct.
There are so many annoying instances of people mishandling customers and going ahead to deny them. We will provide this to the public to negate their ability to intimidate and mistreat customers. Corruption and misconduct are totally unacceptable. We have to deal with it.
Some people have complained that you give them inflated bills...
Once again, this is what makes yaka exciting. In post-paid arrangement, we never remember everything we have done or how we used our equipment over the past month. One month, you may iron your cloth together and put them in the wardrobe; another month, you may iron every morning when going to work.
There are many elements that in thirty days you may not remember. This is why we seek public enthusiasm to embrace pre-paid metres. It gives people a sense of memory in terms of how much power they consumed.
And what should customers do when they receive late bills?
Customers with access to the internet can register for an e-bill. You will always get your bill on time. And we will only give it to you when you ask for them.
Stories of a transformer blowing up aren't strange of late. But how long does it take you to re-fix one?
The most frequent cause of transformers breaking up is the overload of system. And overload is brought by power thefts - you find in an area, we registered 50 users but in the night, they jump to 150. The transformer in that area may [only have capacity to serve] the little number.
If your area is lucky and it's the only transformer that has got blown, you might get it done immediately - within eight hours. There also cases where we get multiple high-level transformers at the same time and it's first come first serve basis. If we don't have any in stock, it may take some time to install.
Each new transformer is $10,000 [Shs 26m]. There is a lot of vandalism, where people take oil out of the transformers - making others suffer. But remember we are in the business of selling [power] and not keeping you off. If we keep you off, then you will give money to the fuel companies.
Everyone seems unhappy: has Umeme achieved anything this year?
[A key achievement] is continuous improvement - building on one thing to another. Last year, we closed with our IPO [initial public offering] - which was an extremely successful IPO. Umeme won the best IPO for Africa [award]. In terms of bringing confidence in financial markets and FDI [foreign direct investment] industry, we have done that well.
But the best thing is to bring down losses. We are now down to 24.9 per cent from 38 per cent. Our target is 24 per cent by the end of this year. Every [one per cent] loss of power is valued in excess of $3m.