South Africa: Defiant Communities Hinder Smart Energy Provision

Cape Town — A deep culture of non-payment, mistrust and general negative public perceptions have been identified as some factors hindering companies in the sector despite utilities adopting technology to improve customer service and drive revenue.

Among companies afflicted by these issues include Eskom, the South African electricity utility.

This is despite the company being at the forefront of technological innovation compared to the rest of the continent.

This was the prevailing sentiment at the African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa conference and exhibition in Cape Town.

Dileep John, Eskom programme lead on Advanced Analytics, acknowledged that how customers interact with the utility needed to change significantly.

"It is about how you interact with your customer and their information needs. So, if the customer interacts with you on Twitter, you must be able to respond on Twitter," John said.

He however added that not all facets of smart energy mechanisms necessarily got automatic consumer buy-in.

John referred to the prepaid electricity meters in Soweto that was met with significant community resistance.

He also acknowledged there was a public perception crisis with Eskom and general mistrust.

These perceptions are driven by mostly load shedding but there is also an existing and well entrenched culture of non-payment that the utility is wrestling, he explained.

"So, we need to get the message across that without this revenue we cannot fund the supply, we cannot fund customer service delivery and any network improvements in the future. It is like a vicious cycle," the Eskom official said.

John said Eskom was driving a behaviour change campaign in resistant communities but was "caught between a rock and a hard place" especially with resistance to smart metering.

Slawomir Klimowicz, industry value advisor for SAP Middle East and North Africa, said customers wanted a better experience of utilities and not just the commodity like water or power.

"I would say the future is one where there is contact with customers - where customers have access to consumption data, to services and get advisories from utility companies. This future comes with mobile applications and social media and a younger generation of consumers," Klimowicz said.

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