"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


paygo electricity?

Given the wild success of prepaid mobile phone service in sub-Saharan Africa, it was just a matter of time before the idea would be applied in other sectors. Congo's national electric company, SNEL, has embarked upon a pilot program for pre-paid electrical service in two Kinshasa neighborhoods, la Cite Mama Mobutu and la Cite Verte.

As Congo Blog notes (French), while the plan does eventually give residents the electricity for which they have paid in advance, the real problem is still SNEL's inability to deliver a constant current to Kinois residents. One Cite Verte resident, Maman Fifi, noted that her home only gets electricity two days per week.

Prepayment is a clever way to overcome a problem that plagues African utility companies: nonpayment of bills. But until infrastructure and delivery problems are overcome, it's unlikely to make much of a difference in the daily lives of the Congolese.


Anonymous Matt said...

Nice to see it coming to the Congo, but pre-paid electricity isn't really a new idea - it's been available (at least in East Africa) for donkey's years.

Friday, June 25, 2010 3:37:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've also heard of a number of pre-paid water projects, including, if memory serves me right, as part of the big UN HABITAT project in Kibera.

Friday, June 25, 2010 4:55:00 AM

Anonymous Theresa Sondjo said...

It's a great way to plague a *different* problem that plagues African utility companies: just how damn difficult does it need to be to pay your bills? Paying for power should not be a three day process.

Pre-paid cards here in Benin are infinitely preferable to the opaque and frustrating post-paid billing process.

Friday, June 25, 2010 8:20:00 AM

Blogger Adam Hooper said...

I love prepaid power, but it's not quite as usable as prepaid phone service because of the connection cost.

In a typical sub-saharan African country, a brand-new phone will cost around $30 (second-hand phones are cheaper). All that's needed after that is a SIM card (around $0.50) bought in the same store, and there you go: from a whim to relatively-affordable phone service in 10 minutes.

But for electricity, you've got to put your name on a connection waiting list. According to http://www.docstoc.com/docs/26445646/how-to-steal-electricity (looks legit...) it'll take 73 days on average for the supplier to get back to you in DR Congo (in Tanzania, it's over a year on average). Those are averages, but of course wait times vary considerably. Then you need to pay a stunning connection cost: several times your average compatriot's annual income. In other words: you have to predict, months or years in advance, that your finances will be healthy at an arbitrary point in the future.

Of course, that all presupposes the government is benevolent enough to run power lines into your neighbourhood in the first place.

In my opinion, prepaid is more desirable than postpaid because you don't have to wait in long lines to pay your bills; but it ends up targeting the same demographic and it doesn't help the poor nearly as much as prepaid phones.

Friday, June 25, 2010 9:58:00 AM

Anonymous Duncan said...

hold on a minute, what's the difference between this and electricity meters, which we used to have in the UK. Back in my student days the lights were always going out leaving us floundering around in the dark for 50p to 'feed the meter'.

Saturday, June 26, 2010 2:30:00 AM

Anonymous Sean said...

@Anonymous: ... And in Southern Africa, and it's record is not that great. Check out the struggles against them by groups like the Anti-Privatization Forum, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, and those residents of South Africa's poor townships who rip out these prepaid meters and illegally reconnect themselves.

Not really such a great idea.

Saturday, June 26, 2010 10:06:00 PM

Anonymous Buzz Light-year said...

In Rwanda the system has proved to be quite successful. I have seen electricity supply become more consistent every year while the other utilities have not become any better and in some cases gotten worse.

Locally the utility provider is actually making money on electricity - the reason why i think they want to expand. However, the are loosing money on water and only collect from less than 10% of customers. Which means that those of us paying for water are footing the bill for others and not contributing enough revenue to see the project expanded.

Going to prepay can be a painful step, but it eventually leads to improvement.

Monday, June 28, 2010 1:51:00 AM

Blogger Matt Davies said...

Interesting how pre-paid electricity in African countries and in the UK have similar origins: ensuring payment. In the UK, however, costs per unit of electricity for pre-paid are far higher, leading to what some NGOs have called a "poverty premium" that the poor must pay.

Monday, June 28, 2010 5:12:00 PM

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Anonymous Mike said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think pre-paid systems are supposed to improve service: one of the big reasons power is so bad in Kinshasa is because something like more than 50% of the connections are illegal, and so SNEL cannot deliver a steady current because there are so many ghost users on the grid.

I think they calculated before based on estimating how much each house consumed. By switching to a prepaid system, everyone who steals electricity is now stealing units from an actual SNEL subscriber giving payers a bigger interest in stamping out freeriders.

Or am I wrong about how it works? I suppose it depends on where the counter is. We are supposed to get the prepaid system here soon, so I'll let you know.

Friday, July 02, 2010 9:13:00 AM


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