Special Adviser to Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State on Public Utilities, Tunji Light Ariyomo in this interview with Kayode Fasua expresses relief that Ondo State has met the needed conditions to secure a $US57 million foreign aid, aimed at realising its ambitious water projects. Excerpts:
Can you offer some insights into the state of public utilities in Ondo State, since Governor Rotimi Akeredolu came on board?
As at February 2017 when Akeredolu was sworn in, public water supply in all parts of Ondo State was zero and the state had been agitating to secure external funding for its water projects for almost a decade. The major issue with water supply is to be able to have the required finance to support water provision. So, when money is lacking, it becomes difficult, especially where water is considered as a social service. Upon my appointment, one of the first directives that came from the governor was that my team must ensure that every single issue that hitherto made it difficult to access funds be resolved. As at today, through our teamwork under the leadership of Akeredolu, we can confidently boast of successfully clearing all the hurdles that had made it difficult for our state to meet all critical conditions hindering us from attracting major funds. We have just secured the final 'no-objection' of the France Development Agency (AFD) for the financing of major water projects across Ondo State, worth $57 million.
There is the thinking that borehole drilling has taken over as the de-facto intervention in the water sector. Is this intervention meant for boreholes across the state?
Borehole drilling has its own significance in the quest to provide potable water for the people. There are remote communities that may not be easily accessible through conventional network of water pipes that convey water from major treatment plants and reservoirs, as we have in the cities. For such isolated communities, a borehole or some batteries of boreholes which can also be reticulated to homes can be appropriate.
But boreholes are daily sunk in cities and big towns these days?
Yes, I was coming to that. The past failures of our major water projects led to borehole as a workaround in towns and cities. For instance, the Awara Water in Ikare has the capacity to supply over 6,000 metric cube of water every day. But the scheme was abandoned several years ago; it simply means that the people of Ikare would have to resort to self-help through hand-dug wells or boreholes. The same thing applies to River Oluwa Regional Water Supply Project in Ondo South, which can serve 65 percent of the population of Okitipupa, Ilutitun, Igbotako, Iju Odo, Ode Aye, Ikoya, Igbobini and Ode Irele, up to Ore town. Unfortunately, the last work done on River Oluwa was under the late former governor, Dr. Olusegun Agagu. Even the government had resort to drilling batteries of boreholes in Okitipupa to get water to the people. So, the objective of the Akeredolu administration is to revamp these major water schemes. We are liaising with serious development partners such as the AFD and the AfDB. We now have concrete results in our engagement with AFD and we are positive that we shall have good news for our people on other engagements soon.
This is in relation to Water, how about Power?
I believe we are making immense progress on power. Our people understand that power investments take a bit longer time for the results to manifest or become apparent. Although in our case, we are focusing on a strategy that can yield exponential impacts as against the national incremental strategy. This is the philosophy behind our fractionated productive clusters' approach in Ondo State, rather than fixation on the national grid. Our mini-grids in those communities that have been completely put off the national grid will become the primary grids in exercise of the powers conferred upon states in the constitution. So, what we have done is to invoke, despite its limitations, the provision in Section 14(b), Part II of the Second Schedule of the Nigerian Constitution on areas outside the national grid. This is what we are doing and our people in Ondo State are aware of the unprecedented nature of these initiatives. By that, the national grid is to us now a secondary or tertiary grid. So far, our activities in the power sector have been well guided. We now have guiding policies for our electricity engagement strategies. Governor has approved a unique policy framework that is aimed at organising our communities into legal entities for the purpose of serving as reliable customers or off-takers of electricity products. We are the first in the entire federation, for instance, to evolve a clear innovative policy framework that organically ties cluster off-takers to their BVNs and by extension, their biometric details, such that regardless of a tenant's subsequent address or abode in Nigeria, his electricity bills and debts in Ondo State will remain continuously and perpetually linked to him and to his incomes. That way, no one can escape payment obligations.
Won't Ondo State need to tinker with its local laws for all these to have a good effect?
Absolutely! That is given. A team is currently reviewing our electricity laws for upgrade. A lot has happened since the days an edict was created for the state's Electricity Board. The laws must surely be strengthened to protect the sector. The Akeredolu's administration has also established a state-owned Power Company-Ondo State Power Company Limited, to primarily anchor all commercial operations in that sector, that involve the state in joint ventures with others.
Specific laws that take into consideration our local peculiarities would have to be put in place as well. Last month, we finally engaged the first set of private power providers to set up mini-grids in critical communities across the state. Those investments would require legal and legislative protections.
Can we know some of the communities that are under consideration for mini-grids?
With the mini-grids, we shall be providing private power for places like Igbokoda, Igbekebo, Ode Omi, Iju Odo, Ilutitun, Kiribo, Igbootu, Ala Elefosan, Ugbonla, Aboto, Oda, Aponmu, Auga Oke Igbagbo, Ese by Ogbagi Akoko, Bamikemo in Ile Oluji and several other places with the communities themselves owning as much as five percent of the equity in the power plants.
The Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC) has also informed us at our last formal engagement that it is interested in deploying mini-grid captive power for additional communities in the state, while we have also formally approached some federal agencies, such as the Niger Delta Power Holding Company for intervention on mini-grid for additional communities in Ondo State.
We are also working with the Rural Electrification Agency and other serious developers for mini-grid interventions in our major markets across the state. The Vice President recently flagged off the pilot in Isinkan market in Akure, the state capital. We are currently in the process of consummating necessary agreements for the kick-off of the major projects across the markets.
There is this observation in many states that some cabals in the local distribution companies can frustrate any attempt to fix the power sector. We even observe that they are currently fighting the Minister for Power. Won't they be a hindrance in Ondo State?
Well, I don't know about any cabal. Everybody I have met or interacted with even among senior officials of the distribution company accept and admit unreservedly that we must do something drastic, measured and impactful, if we, as black people, do not want to perpetually look like lower primates that are incapable of sophisticated organisation. In all our considerations, we factored in important roles for the local distribution company. For example, following the governor's directive that we must complete the abandoned state-owned 30MW power plant at Oluwa Village near Ore, our first decision was to approach the local Disco to off-take the power. Gladly, we have now obtained a firm assurance of their readiness to off-take. That is collaboration. It is a win-win scenario. We are currently working with them to provide additional power source in Ondo North and they are ready to off-take that as well. So, while I concede that it may be a major problem in some states, I do not envisage similar experience in Ondo State. Our case is particularly unique in the sense that, most of what even constitute distribution infrastructure across the state are, in fact, either built by the state government through the Ondo State Electricity Board or built by individual house owners. So, collaboration is the best in this circumstance.
The federal government appears to be in control of the power sector; isn't this part of the problem with that sector?
The power sector requires sophisticated, strategic and highly technical interventions. You need many good heads to be able to achieve results in such a circumstance. That is the advantage inherent in allowing states and local governments across the country to be frontally involved in fixing the sector and our constitution envisages this, hence, the provision for "areas not covered by the national grid", as indicated in that Section 14(b). Today, if you want investment protection for a mini-grid as small as 101kW in a faraway community such as Pepe or Obenla on the high sea in Ilaje Local Government area of Ondo State, you would need to consummate that by obtaining a mini-grid permit from some federal agency hundreds of kilometres away in Abuja! Likewise, if you intend powering your farm in Ala Elefosan with a production requirement above 1MW or 2MW, you go through the same process. That is sure recipe for underdevelopment and overregulation of a sector in need of exponential expansion. Our unitary approach or monolithic engagement strategy has not worked. An inflexible monolithic engagement strategy through a unitary federal government's ubiquitous control of the power sector across the 36 states and the FCT over a land space in excess of 900,000 Square kilometre is an advertisement of our aversion towards knowledge and an intifada against common-sense.
The billions of dollars federal expenditure on power between 1999 and today with only darkness as evidence are the ignoble testimonies of the failure of that strategy. This is why the recent disposition of the federal government through the Federal Ministry of Power under Fashola which encourages states of the federation to step forward and take the bull by the horn is very commendable.