How utility firms are hurting consumers

KPLC offices in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG
KPLC offices in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

We learned early in our lives about the importance of honesty and integrity. That the truth matters, you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own rules, and that success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.

I have paraphrased these wise words from Michelle Obama because our utility organisations are failing on every measure that she enumerated.

The Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) is being accused of falsifying customer data, including illegal change of meter records, and is suspected to be in connivance with nefarious characters to slap customers with outrageous bills.

I know we have had integrity issues, but it has never reached this low. The energy sector is replete with complaints of inflated bills from the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC). The company does not deny the accusation. Instead, they blame the computer.

Well, as far as I know, computers take instructions from human beings and when they fail to produce the desired results, someone may have interfered with them. Garbage in, garbage out.

This blame game also comes at a time when KPLC is under intense pressure to shed more light into its financial results. Some numbers are not adding up. There is reasonable cause that the falsification of billing numbers had nothing to do with computer errors but a process to engineer the entire financial reporting.

All of these integrity issues should never arise in this day in age when we have the technologies to detect mischief before the public is affected.

The advent of big data means we can monitor the numbers from power generation to the consumer and every applicable cost throughout the supply chain.

This tracing of the numbers is key to the country’s planning of the power requirement and the improvement of the company’s productivity. Unfortunately, consumers are in the dark as virtually every cost is passed on to them including inefficiencies occasioned by transmission losses and never explained to consumers.

Yet, we have regulators who are supposed to protect consumers. From the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), someone should have come up to reprimand KPLC before the situation gets worse.

When Parliament summoned KPLC to appear before it, the company failed to show up to respond to questions on inflated electricity bills.

Public relations agencies attribute high bills to system failures but on the other hand ask for more time from parliament to allow the company time to assess and get appropriate answers. Meanwhile the NCWSC is fleecing consumers with hefty water bills. In 2016, the company replaced the old meters with new ones and at the time, they attributed higher water cost to inefficiencies.

The average cost per unit (600) cubic meters then was Sh45 with a flat rate of Sh200 for those consuming between one to six units.

The rate of Sh45 is maintained for families consuming between seven and 60 units but commercial users consuming more than 60 units are to pay at the rate of Sh64 per unit.

This simple and straightforward formula has not worked since the problem lies in fidgeting with metering. The issue with NCWSC is not the transparency of pricing, but the behaviour of its staff. KPLC, however, still does not transparently provide its pricing policy. A consumer cannot validate its many categories of charging that include fuel cost, fixed charge, and consumption.

The policy needs to be clear and understood by the consumers. There is need for legislation to compel these organizations to provide on monthly basis the total consumption as it relates to total production.

Further, more than ever before, we need these organisations to install smart devices and use of Internet of Things (IoT) to resolve this problem once and for all. The cost of these devices has significantly dropped to inclusive and affordable levels.

The technology infrastructure (USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is accessible even to low-end devices to monitor consumption and notify the consumer.

With these interventions, utility companies will play by our rules but not by their own set of rules that hurt the consumer.