News / Africa

DRC Electricity Customers Question Bills

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Nick Long
— Getting electricity is becoming easier across most of Africa, but not in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A recent World Bank study found that people in Congo spend more of their income to get reliable electricity for business purposes than anywhere else in the world. Since that study was published, some Congolese have been questioning their electricity bills.

In response to questions about its billing system, the national electricity company or Société Nationale d’Electricité (SNEL), has said that it intends to install more prepaid electricity meters across the capital Kinshasa - so that less power is wasted and people pay for what they use.

Currently most of SNEL’s customers pay on a flat rate system, which the company says is losing it money.

People in Goma that VOA spoke to said they hoped SNEL is serious about installing meters. They have noticed that in neighboring Rwanda, where all the national power company’s customers have meters, they appear to get much better value for money.

Congolese electrician Samson Ndako has spent a lot of time in Rwanda. He says the electricity supply is regular in Rwanda.   He says they do not often have power outages, and when they do, they announce it on the radio - they tell customers when it’s going to happen and after one or two hours the power is restored.

Ndako says he has found that when he is living in Rwanda, a dollar’s worth of pre-paid electricity units lasts him from a week to 10 days.

But in Goma, living in the same kind of apartment and using the same appliances - a radio, TV, CD player and laptop - he says he is paying a lot more for less power.

He says in his neighborhood, they pay a flat rate.  He pays $10 or $11 a month, and he does not get regular electricity. It is on for about two hours a day.  And, those hours are not at regular times.  He says sometimes they send him power during the night, from 10 or 11 pm to 4 or 5 am, but he says he does not need electricity at that time because he is in bed.

There is a local association in Ndako’s neighborhood which paid for a SNEL line to be installed and tries to represent customers’ interests.  The head of this association,  Ismail Bikelenge, says people in the electricity company are profiting from its current billing system.

He says SNEL is billing people for electricity they never used, whereas in well governed countries customers only pay for what they use and they can keep track of that with a meter.

SNEL’s management in Goma declined to be interviewed but a SNEL employee agreed to talk to VOA on condition that his name was withheld. He says the current billing system is largely guesswork.

He says the company’s employees visit a house and they see a TV, a radio and other appliances and they imagine how much power the household uses.  He says it is an imaginary bill, so to speak..

He says SNEL pays employees only $80 a month, out of which they may have feed and pay school fees for five to eight children, so there is a limit to how well they work.

As for the possibility of installing meters, he said that SNEL’s management in Goma had asked the head office in Kinshasa to send them meters.

He says they had asked but the request had been shelved, without a response. He thought there was a lack of will. He says that, even if today the management decided that the electricity bills had to be reduced, who would accept that, because everyone in the Congo has to look out for their children’s and their families’ interests first?

Installing meters does impose extra costs for the customers. In Rwanda, it costs the equivalent of $100 to install an electricity meter, plus nearly a dollar a month in insurance costs in case the meter breaks down. And, those are costs that every customer has to pay, so some poor people have been excluded.

Nevertheless, access to the national grid in Rwanda has more than doubled since 2009 and is now at around 15 percent, compared with Congo where it is still only around seven percent and the outages are getting worse.

Samson Ndako said that in the Congo SNEL has been selling its meters to customers for about $120.

But then they ask for extra costs on top of that, he says. They will say 'you have to buy this and that' and although your house has been properly wired, they will say 'it has not been wired properly, we’ll have to redo it.' And, when the customer refuses and says he would rather pay the flat rate.

SNEL’s official explanation for the outages in Goma is that the hydroelectric dam at Ruzizi, which supplies the city, has insufficient capacity. The SNEL employee that VOA interviewed said the real problems are poor maintenance of the transmission network, illegal connections and inefficient distribution, which more use of meters could help remedy.

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