FEATURE ARTICLE

Thursday, April 25, 2019
[email protected]
Jos, Nigeria
POWER OUTAGE: MY WAY-OUT FOR THE DISTRIBUTION COMPANIES (Discos)

omething happened in 2011 when the federal government decided to re-strategize on the deal to make electricity stable. They decided to open the space for a group of investors to play and, the investors eventually bought over the former PHCN to make government’s NIPP a little less the waste than it already was. This is how it looked back in 2011. Remember, government had before then spent a whopping $16 billion USD between 2002 and 2007.

The investors bought into what was left of the national integrated power project (NIPP) – which had become a monumental waste when most participating contractors designated to specific catchment areas failed to execute their jobs as was agreed – and; wasted no time in creating the impression that they were on board to make profit. Unfortunately, that impression did not go down well with the consumers.

For instance, the consumers wanted to be metered so as to pay for what they consumed as against the status quo that saw former NEPA and former PHCN billed the consumer on estimation. For this, the investors were adamant and refused to listen to the consumer. Time and time again, the government issued orders that authorized the players to distribute Pre-paid Meters to the customers but those were not obeyed.

In the days of the NIPP, it is widely believed that the ministry of power was solely responsible for the failures. Despite the billions of dollars that was sunk into the project by the Obasanjo administration, in some site, all that is seen are the materials to use but no sign of activity. In some other places, work progressed to about 50% and nothing more happened. If NIPP was allowed to succeed, $5 billion USD would’ve been enough to fix power.

And the investors came in, met the usual epileptic supply, met the more than two-third population that was not metered and; believed the sector could be revived. They had good reasons to believe in the sector especially with the re-modification that split up former PHCN and introduced the Distribution Companies (Discos), Generation Companies (Gencos) and the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) to play in the NIPP vision for stable electricity for all Nigerians.

In 2011, the vision for stable electricity looked achievable but today, it looks like a mirage. What went wrong? Why are the investors regretting their venture into the sector? For me, the story of Nigeria’s power sector is one that should remind us that we are the canker worms that have refused to let the country work. We have refused to see how our chase for gains was putting everything in jeopardy.

When the new players came on board – many scrambled to play as well, by the way – the first thing consumers expected was a friendly approach given the epileptic supply. This they did not get and from all indication, they may never get. The problem of epileptic supply should ordinarily have spurred these investors into creating a win-win atmosphere (which may not be profitable to them in the beginning but will surely produce in the end).

It was important to let consumers understand that their interest was going to be protected as much as it was possible to do. This means that the distribution of the Pre-paid Meter – if it was necessary then – should not have been the demand of the consumer but a gift from the provider. The meters should’ve been freely given to the consumers! The Discos never approached it this way. Rather, they made the consumer feel foolish to have asked for it.

They sold the meters at a high price and delayed its delivery for as long as they wished. Because there was epilepsy both in the generation and distribution of electricity, there was need to streamline the entire process in order to know the exact number of the population of consumers so as to be able to narrow their strength to supply that population first. Now, the Discos do not have a precise data on their target market.

They do not know the number with meter and without meter. Also, because of the problem they faced with the elites, banks, companies and factory owners as well as the political class; all of whom hardly paid their bills, there is the issue of where to get all the monies that could not be extracted from the rightful debtors. The problems of illegal connections and by-passes that many consumers have resorted to are not yet addressed.

So when you factored in the fact that they bought electricity from the Gencos to sell to the consumers; you’d find out that the Discos are practically operating at a loss. But the model of robbing Peter to pay Paul as is the system is wrong. AEDC for instance has become so notorious in doing this that one wonders if this whole idea of privatizing the power sector was well thought-out from the beginning.

The ordinary Nigerians who faithfully paid their bills are not well served even though they practically paid for what the rich consumed! Yet, more priority goes to the rich. This is callous. It is one of the many pressures that the rich and powerful has brought to bear on the poor. If not wickedness, was it correct to operate on estimated billing system (EBS)? Where was the attribute that told us that indeed there was a privatization of the former PHCN?

From the little that I know, consumers want stable and constant power supply and if it’s not available they want what is available at an affordable tariff. They also want Pre-paid Meters so as to be billed for what they consumed. What was the point of likening the power sector to the communication sector and having to compare notes with them over who made what and who didn’t? For the records, the telecom operators are up-to-date on service provision.

They are up-to-date in terms of metering their customers. They are working hard to create payment packages that suited their customers because they understood that taste varied from person to person. The competition among the operators is healthy and provides the needed spices that kept the customer coming back again and again. Those efforts should ordinarily make them the delight of customers.

The fact that power was a pressing necessity that was used by all should not mean abuse. With the signs showing clearly that all was not well with the present arrangement, my way-out for the distribution companies particularly – because they are the ones that had contact with the final consumer – is that they must begin to think deeply on the attitude-side of their business.

I have heard glib talks about pushing for the option of increased tariff as a way-out to keep these operators in business and I believe that it will only aggravate the already messed-up situation. The Discos should come back to the point of allaying the fears of the consumers first. They needed to draw up smart strategizes that will help them win the trust and the confidence of the consumer.

If you permit me, let their thinking go like this: Why will a customer respond to the AEDC (for instance) if they did nothing to erase the memory of NEPA & PHCN with that customer? Just check it now. No one expects the customer to jump around excitedly just because Aliko Dangote now owns and operated BEDC (for instance). But if he brings in expertise and improves on customer relation; he sure will be celebrated by the customer.

The first thing that investors normally did when they took over the running of a business was to create their own image? And with that they connected with customers. This singular step brought satisfaction to certain customers. This is what I expect the Discos to do.

I hold this opinion because – in my mind – should there be any alternative that appealed to the consumer in the face of what they got from the present operators; there is no telling that they will quickly drop ‘NEPA’ by the roadside and jump unto the bandwagon.

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