One of the first things Mali’s new government did after the end of the Islamist occupation of the north was to restore the power grid and introduce a voucher payment system. For residents of Timbuktu it has become a hardship - sometimes having to choose between electricity or food on the table.
When the Islamists ruled Timbuktu, electricity was scarce but at least it was free. Now, says Doumbia Baby, there is power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many, however, can’t afford to pay for the public service.
“For those who don’t have work, sometimes it comes down to paying for electricity or putting food on the table," she says, adding that it is an especially tough struggle for people with children.
Inside her small mud brick house, a stone’s throw from the city’s main market, the radio is always playing. Outside, on the main road, streetlights come on as soon as the sun goes down. This is a stark contrast to 18 months ago, when voters headed to the polls in the country’s first elections after separatist rebels and Islamic groups occupied much of northern Mali in 2012. Timbuktu only had electricity a couple of hours every day, Baby says.
“With the militant Islamist group, Ansar Dine, power came and went, at least we didn’t have to pay for it,” she says.
Now, with the return of government authority, there are regulations and fees. One of the first measures taken by the national energy company was to restore the power grid. In a second step, they changed the electricity meters in most households.
Instead of monthly payments, the new system use prepaid vouchers. Every customer pays ahead for the electricity his or her family uses. When the prepaid credit is finished, the electricity is cut.
In a town still scarred by the Islamist occupation - and a subsequent international military intervention - life has yet to return to normal. Most public services are not yet fully up and running. Many people remain jobless, struggling to support their families, so the prepaid electricity system is an extra burden.
"Before if you didn’t have the money to pay one month, you could wait and pay until the month after or whenever you had cash. Now the electricity is cut as soon as the credit is finished,” says Baby.
Those who have not yet had their counters replaced are reluctant to do so, knowing that they will have to start paying for their actual consumption.
Aliou Maiga is the regional director at the national energy company.
Arriving in Kabara, a village just south of Timbuktu, Maiga and his colleague Modibo Diarra, go door to door, in search of customers who have yet to report to the national power company's office in Timbuktu.
“During the occupation, the population in Timbuktu suffered. That’s why the government decided to look between the fingers and not make people pay for the electricity people used. Now the government is back, people need to start paying,” says Aliou Maiga.
He estimates about half of Timbuktu’s 60,000 inhabitants are connected to the power grid. At the moment, the fragile government lacks the means to extend the network. In order to connect more customers, people need to pay for the service, Maiga explains.