Rogue contractors are taking advantage of long customer waiting periods to illegally connect applicants to the national electricity grid, putting lives and property at risk in a syndicate that is also costing Kenya Power millions of shillings.
Technicians behind the dodgy scheme are said to be stealing prepaid meters from Kenya Power and siphoning wooden poles from treatment centres to connect households located near transformers, with fake electricity.
Tens of thousands of households have belatedly woken up to the reality that they were conned into illegal connections after their meters failed to recharge and load tokens – because they are not registered in Kenya Power’s systems.
The fake engineers, who masquerade as Kenya Power staff, charge as much as Sh50,000 – higher than the standard Sh34,980 for domestic lines - and guarantee electricity connection within 24 hours, sometimes using second-hand poles.
Investors and households on average wait for 110 days to get electricity connection in Kenya, according to the World Bank’s latest Doing Business report.
The phony electricity connections not only pose physical danger to the consumers but have also become a massive point of revenue and system losses for Kenya Power.
It is now feared that the upsurge in bogus connections and the resulting electricity theft could rev up Kenya Power’s network system losses that stood at 17.5 per cent in June 2015.
Kenya Power chief executive Ben Chumo declined to comment on this story, even though the State-controlled utility has lately stepped up its fight against rogue contractors and homes enjoying illegal connections.
Dr Chumo has previously disclosed that one percentage point in system losses is equivalent to Sh1 billion sales, highlighting the cost of electricity theft.
Prepaid meters, unlike the conventional postpaid meters, can easily be deployed and come with 30 preloaded units to ensure customers enjoy electricity as Kenya Power activates the account number. This has given the fake contractors leeway to deploy prepaid meters, now rendered dud, to unsuspecting households.
Kenya Power, a monopoly in electricity distributor, has 4.9 million customers, meaning about six out of every 10 Kenyans or 57 per cent of the population is connected to the grid.
Informal settlements have always been seen as havens of electricity theft and illegal connections, forcing the utility company to roll out a World Bank-backed scheme that allows slum dwellers to pay Sh1,160 for connection to the grid.
Last year, the subsidy programme connected 524,813 households in informal settlements such as Nairobi’s Kibera, Mathare, and Mukuru.
A total of 1.14 million new low-income customers have been supplied with electricity under this grant scheme since piloting in 2014.
Now the battleground has shifted to ordinary homes, who account for a quarter of Kenya Power sales and are ranked behind large commercial users (52 per cent) and ahead of SMEs (21 per cent).
Arrests carried for crimes related to vandalism, theft of electricity and phony lines rose 77 per cent to 257 in the six months to June 2016 compared to a similar period last year, according to Kenya Power.
“The increase in arrests is due to a concerted effort by Kenya Power and police to crack down on illegal connections, vandalism and theft of company property,” the company said.
Last month, 10 poles, a prepaid meter and 1,200 metres of conductors were recovered from a suspect at Sitotwet and Sambochi areas of Kericho County, in a sting operation tracking down illegal lines.
In a related event, 500 metres of aluminum conductors and two prepaid meters belonging to bandit contractors were found in Syokimau, Machakos County.
Still in September, “a notorious fraudster responsible for construction of illegal lines” was arrested in Utange, Mombasa County. Three people were also arrested for vandalism and theft of electricity in Gikambura area, Kiambu County a month earlier.
The arrests came after residents of Karai area took to the streets in June to protest the cheating of more than 50 homeowners by contractors posing as Kenya Power agents.
Last month, Kenya Power reported that a staff member had died while another was seriously injured after they were electrocuted in Kisumu, in an incident that was associated with illegal connections in the lakeside city.
The illicit electricity lines business is also being fuelled by the Last Mile project which has seen Kenya Power order for materials, including 195,299 wooden poles, about 0.5 million prepaid meters, tonnes of cable wires and more than 5,000 transformers.
Leakages at Kenya’s more than two dozen commercial wooden pole treatment plants – with an installed capacity of more than one million power transmission poles per year – is also powering the fraud.
Players in the wood treatment business in Kenya include listed firm Kakuzi, Timber Treatment International (formerly East African Tannin Extraction Co), Gilgil Telecommunications Industries, Timsales Ltd, Comply Ltd, E A Cabro, Typsy Timber Treatment Ltd, Muringa Holdings Ltd, and Kuza.
Others are Central Imenti Co-operative Society Meru, Murendat Timber Treatment Ltd, Makuyu Timber Treatment Ltd Rosoga Enterprises Ltd, and Keystone Treatment Services located in Lessos.