While Umeme, govt and parliament tussle, Ugandans live in darkness

Wednesday December 4 2013

A Customer care worker explains about different voltage metres at the Lugogo Umeme Centre in Kampala. Umeme is in negotiations with IFC and other banks to raise $470 million over the next four years to invest in refurbishing the network. Photo/FILE

A Customer care worker explains about different voltage metres at the Lugogo Umeme Centre in Kampala. Umeme is in negotiations with IFC and other banks to raise $470 million over the next four years to invest in refurbishing the network. Photo/FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ANDREW M MWENDA, Special Correspondent

Two weeks ago, an ad hoc committee of parliament recommended that the government cancel its contract with Umeme for the distribution of electricity in the country.

The committee raises many complaints against the concession agreement and Umeme’s performance; a few correct, some legitimate, others completely wrong and many erroneous.

In fact, by relying on many erroneous and ill-informed arguments to recommend an arbitrary cancellation of the concession, the committee inadvertently demonstrates why it was vital for Umeme to insist on the very provisions in the concession that parliament feels are unfair to the Ugandan people.

When the government decided to unbundle Uganda Electricity Board (UEB) into three separate entities to manage electricity generation, transmission and distribution, it hired an international company called Fieldstone Private Capital Group Ltd to help handle the matter.

After two years of work, the government put out a tender for generation and distribution concessions. Five companies expressed interest and came to Uganda to do a due diligence on the sector. After studying the country’s political and regulatory framework all of them pulled out without submitting a bid.

What were the issues? They are largely of a political nature. Uganda had subsidised the electricity tariff for a long time. The electricity tariff had remained unchanged from 1993 to 2002.

The prevailing price then was far below the actual cost of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity; it’s value having been eroded by inflation and foreign exchange depreciation. The country had also ignored or condoned rampant power thefts.

Thirdly many people who were in default were not being taken to task. Note: in Kenya the electricity tariff is subject to constant adjustment every year to both domestic inflation and foreign exchange depreciation.

Culture of impunity

Consequently, Ugandan electricity consumers took it for granted that electricity was cheap and that its price could not change. A culture of impunity had also grown and consolidated so that thieves and defaulters could steal and/or refuse to pay and remain untouched. These were causing high nontechnical losses in the sector.

To compound this, UEB had spent decades with little or no investment in improving the distribution lines, transformers and meters. The sector was unattractive to investors. UEB was a government parastatal and no one cared whether the tariff covered the costs of electricity production.

The solution to this conundrum was doubled edged: to reduce technical losses would demand heavy investment in upgrading the power lines and transformers, meters and even more investment in human resource.

If any private investor did this, they would have to charge this cost through the tariff; second, to reduce nontechnical losses an investor would have to ruthlessly clump down on power thefts by raiding homes and small businesses to apprehend illegal connections, hire a security force to curb thefts of power lines, transformers and tampering with meters and finally ruthlessly cut off many defaulting customers off power to force them to pay.

This operation would destroy the image of any investor before his customers. Besides these measures had political implications. Potential investors feared that the public would not accept increases in the tariff.

Investors complained that the regulator did not have the capacity to make independent decisions. This is because the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) had once increased the tariff but the government intervened and suspended it.

Indeed, if you look at the books of UEDCL, you will find a back-to-back debt it owes generation and transmission companies, which has never been recovered.

The Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) put these issues in writing, such as political risk, foreign exchange risk and revenue collection risk.

However, they said that if these issues were addressed, they would bid. The government decided to talk to them. After the bidding, they formed a consortium with Eskom, one of the other bidders. Both are parastatals, one owned by the British government, another by the South African government.

The negotiations between the government on one had and CDC and Eskom on the other lasted for three years. The government promised to protect the investor from regulatory and political risks and the concession was designed by escalating the penalties government would pay in case of a breach. This was the first distribution concession in Africa.

CDC and Eskom feared that if anyone attempted to increase the tariff, especially at a steep rate, it would cause thefts, defaults and illegal connections. So the concession made it clear that government would not increase the tariff for more than 10 per cent in any given year and not more than 20 per cent in any three consecutive years.

Thus, although the public and parliament accuse Umeme of seeking to increase the tariff rapidly, Umeme has been against it and this is enshrined in the concession agreement.

In fact rapid increases in the tariff are a violation of the concession, which should force Umeme to pull out. The question then was: if the tariff was going to remain stable and change only by not more than 20 per cent every three years, who was going to pay for the mismatch between the existing tariff and actual cost of production, transmission and distribution? The answer is the government through the subsidy.

Even after the government had agreed to these demands, Umeme was reluctant to join and asked for an 18-month concession as a trial run to see whether the government would honour its word.

They agreed to invest a non-refundable $5 million within the 18 months. Five months to the end of that period, in March 2005, power supply declined by 50 per cent due to low water levels in Lake Victoria. This forced the government to bring in thermal generators, a factor that escalated the cost of electricity, thus increasing the price of subsidies.

To avoid bankruptcy, the government decided to increase the tariff by 22 per cent in March 2005, then 35 per cent in May 2006 and another 43 per cent in November 2006.

Thus, in less than two years, government increased the tariff by 98 per cent contrary to the concession agreement. Again, Umeme had all the rights to terminate the concession.

The government would have been forced to compensate them fully. Indeed they threatened to do exactly that, a factor that triggered negotiations with the government.

Umeme argued that such a sudden hike in the tariff was going to increase illegal connections and defaults, making it difficult for the company to reduce nontechnical losses.

The result was that the government suspended the loss reduction targets to keep Umeme involved. It is only after electricity supply constraints were eased in 2009 that ERA began to set collection and loss reduction targets.

In 2009, losses fell from 35 per cent to 30 per cent and in 2010 they fell to 28 per cent. This year the losses have fallen to 24 per cent and in 2018, Umeme has a target to have reduced them to 14 per cent.

Technical and non technical losses in Kenya are 17 per cent, Tanzania 20 per cent, Rwanda 22 per cent and Burundi 25 per cent. Parliament should seek to hold Umeme to account on these targets rather than seek to cancel their concession. But political interference in the tariff market has not gone away.

Over the past one year, there is no approved tariff. Why? Because the ERA drew a new tariff which it asked the government to approve. Yet ERA is not obliged to seek such approval. This means that ERA is not or does not feel independent, the very factor that scared away investors in 2001.

You cannot judge something that you cannot measure. That is why in all serious companies and contracts, parties are given clearly defined performance targets against which to measure the results of their work.

In the case of the Umeme concession, they have five targets set by ERA: on connections, collections, loss reduction, investment and operation and maintenance costs. On each of these targets, Umeme has either achieved them or surpassed them.

This is not to say Umeme has no problems. One can find one million and one faults with Umeme. However, judgment of its performance can only be based on set targets — otherwise we risk subjecting it to the arbitrary whims of individual consumers and politicians.

Under the concession agreement, Umeme was to have reduced electricity losses from 38 per cent to 28 per cent in the first seven years of the contract. They have reduced them to 24 per cent by end of this year — four per cent above target.

They were supposed to have invested $65 million in the first seven years; they have invested $130 million. They were supposed to make 60,000 new connections in the first seven years; they have made 220,000 connections.

They were to increase collection of revenue from 75 per cent to 95 per cent; they are collecting 98 per cent of total electricity sold as per 2013. They have exceeded their operation and maintenance costs because of over achieving their connection and collection targets.

However, the Uganda electricity distribution network is still poor and in urgent need of massive investment. Heavy rain is enough to make some lines go off.

There is still rampant theft of transformers and electricity wires. Even though Umeme has been investing in lines and new transformers much more needs to be done.

Uganda has a distribution network of 26,000km of lines, with 67 substations, 8,000 transformers and 370,000 poles. Of these, Umeme has replaced 200,000 poles and there are 60,000 more poles urgently needed to replace those that are in bad shape.

Secondly, 16 per cent of the network needs replacement. It is not practically possible to finish this work in one or two years, even if one had the money and desire to. Currently, the estimated cost for fixing these problems is $500 million.

Assuming Umeme invested this money in just two years to solve these distribution network problems; who would pay for it? Of course it is the consumer through the tariff.

Is the Ugandan consumer willing to accept another tariff increase? If the tariff were increased, what would be the response of parliament, the mass media and the political marketplace?

Politics demands that there should be a balance between the rate of investment in improving the network and the tariff Ugandan consumers are willing to pay. If you are Umeme, you know that your customers are angry with you for all the wrong reasons.

First, Umeme contributes the least to the tariff. Out of the total price for electricity paid by consumers, Umeme takes only 15 per cent — 85 per cent goes to generation firms and the transmission company.

Get concessional loans

One would suggest that the government helps Umeme get concessional loans — or it makes the investment in the distribution network in order to subsidise the consumer.

This is because the medium-term reliability of the business of electricity distribution depends on ensuring that the consumer can afford the service. For now, the threats by parliament to cancel the Umeme concession are counterproductive.

For example, right now Umeme is in negotiations with IFC and other banks to raise $470 million over the next four years to invest in refurbishing the network. The aim is to correct existing network problems and reduce power outages.

Yet at the same time, these negotiations and plans are being undermined by threats from parliament to terminate the contract. And this is in circumstances where parliament is ignoring clearly defined performance targets given to Umeme by the government all of which Umeme has not only met but in many cases actually exceeded.

According to a PriceWaterHouseCoopers’ report into the utility company, Umeme’s performance has contributed to savings for the customer in the form of reduced tariffs (otherwise they would have been higher) and to the government in reduced subsidies.

In real terms, between 2005 and 2012 Umeme has: Saved the Ugandan electricity consumer about Ush808 billion ($319 million) as a result of reducing revenue collection losses; paid Ush2,024 billion ($800 million) to UETCL through the costs of buying electricity; generated Ush125 billion ($49 million) in direct taxes and Ush99 billion ($39 million) in indirect taxes to the government of Uganda; directly employed over 2,000 people through permanent and/or contracted positions; made payments of Ush194 billion ($77 million) to UEDCL for renting the distribution network; spent Ush278 billion ($110 million) through wages, staff costs and dividends; invested Ush420 billion ($166 million) into the electricity distribution network.

This investment will revert to UEDCL at the end of the concession.