On my maiden reporting trip to Kanungu district in 2005, the entire town – including the hotel where I stayed – had a specific time for lights out.
Around 11pm, the hotel would suddenly go dead quiet and pitch dark as the lights went out, the music stopped playing and the thermal electricity generator shut down.
Nearly 10 years later, as we sit at the office of the Kanungu district LC-V chairperson, Josephine Kasya, the veteran administrator reflects with a muffled smile about the difficulties of keeping the south-western district lit at that time.
Kasya notes that aside from private thermal generators, the two much bigger ones provided by businessman Garuga Musinguzi served only Kanungu and Kihihi town councils. Everybody else had to make do with candles.
A HERCULEAN TASK
During the good times, authorities would run the two generators for up to 18 hours. Often, however, as Kasya reveals, keeping them on for that entire time was a herculean task.
“We would all contribute on a monthly basis – the district, and some organisations and traders around who would be using it – but still it was not simple. Because of that limited funding, we would use it say for some specific hours and then put it off. Some would default and then we would have to put it off even much earlier,” she says.
Kanungu finally got connected to the national electricity grid in 2008. Since then, Kasya explains, there is evident systematic transformation. It is visible in the schools that can now conduct night time classes and “preps”, to small scale businesses that can undertake electricity-intensive works such as wielding and milling.
“We had one tea factory, now we have three of them, and two more are being established. All these have stimulated a lot of production,” explains Kasya. “If you compare what Kanungu is now with what it was before the installation of hydroelectric power, there are a lot of success stories to tell.”
Indeed, of all the places that I visited for this series, Kanungu had the highest number of visible electricity connections. Nearly every other house by the roadside had tapped electricity from the poles snaking across the hilly district.
LESS ROSY PICTURE
However, conversations with some recent entrants to the national electricity grid present a slightly less rosy picture. One such entrant is Kinkiizi Development Company, the biggest local business here. As power arrived, KDC expanded its operations.
According to Charles Byaruhanga, the coordinator of KDC’s tea development project, they opened up a total of three factories. However, he says, electricity supply is largely unreliable, which affects operations at the manufacturing arm of the sprawling, Garuga Musinguzi-owned business empire.
“They have connected the lines but the power is always not there,” Byaruhanga tells me. “So, with this power which is on-and-off, we are relying on diesel to run the industries. They removed duty-free diesel for industries, so the expenses are slowing the industry. All these other small industries are in disarray; most of them are going to close because of that problem.”
At the farmer-owned Kayonza growers’ tea factory, Marcel Asiimwe, the chief executive officer, offers a more detailed insight into their woes. Before grid electricity arrived, they operated three generators, which cost them Shs 750 million monthly. Reliable supply of grid electricity, with power constancy at 90 per cent, helped reduce Kayonza’s energy costs to Shs 300 million, according to Asiimwe. In fact, they were even tempted to increase their output.
However, the company’s electricity-related troubles resurfaced when the power constancy dropped to about 60 per cent. Asiimwe says the regular interruptions which, according to records they keep, are sometimes as many as 10 every four hours in the evenings, damage the machinery.
“Those fluctuations are very devastating to our equipment,” he says. “Every now and again we are losing our circuit breakers, our conductors; we are losing various equipments. We lost a metering unit that we had procured at $27,000 [Shs 77m]. We lost our intercom which we had installed [at] Shs 100m.”
Anthony Ndyanabangi, the production manager, says the interruptions also compromise the quality of the processed tea, which must go through a delicate, time-bound production procedure in order to retain its distinctive characteristics. Kayonza packs three to four tonnes of tea each month.
“When you have got these power cuts, our fermentation is affected, our drying is affected, even the cutting is actually affected; so, we end up losing quality in those areas,” says Ndyanabangi. “The most delicate part of the tea is when you have just crushed it. Once crushed, it is supposed to spend 80 minutes on the trays. If there is an interruption and the tea spends 90 minutes, the characteristics that people look for in tea are destroyed. It loses its quality, its value.”
POWER LOAD ISSUES
According to Asiimwe, after the grid electricity lured them to increase their production, the interruptions have forced them to purchase another generator and stock more fuel for the times they opt to switch to thermal electricity altogether in order to reduce machine damage. This has once again pushed their costs to the Shs 700m region.
Another recurrent problem was visible in the northern district of Amuru. On one side of Amuru trading centre is a three-phase electricity line which can support heavy machinery such as grinding mills. On the other side, where Charles Kidega’s mill is located, is a two-phase line, which can only be used for lighting and other light-duty activities.
Kidega is dismayed that while one line runs above his mill and another is a few metres away, he has not been able to access electricity to reduce his production costs.
“The power on our side is too low to run the machines. They are asking us to pay Shs 3 million to connect power from the other side of the road,” says Kidega.
The executive director of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), Godfrey Turyahikayo, explained in an interview that the installation of power lines in every part of the country where they are so far followed a needs assessment.
“When we are doing our surveys, we registered all the activities which require three-phase [lines] or we look at people who have concrete plans. Then we put there an appropriate transformer,” he says, adding, “The problem is that when we have set up the power lines, people start saying they want to run machinery but during the time we carried out the survey they never told us. That’s why you find issues.”
JUST TIFIABLE REASONS
Turyahikayo added that if locals apply to REA for an upgrade of the lines that go through their community, the agency can make the change, but only after their own review finds justifiable reasons for the upgrade.
“Normally they [should] inform us and justify. We will go back [to review] and, if we get resources, we will upgrade,” he says, emphasising however that the changes can only be made when the resources are available.
The challenge faced by Kidega in Amuru is merely a microcosm of the recurrent issues that plague the rural electrification programme. In other cases, residents can see the power lines alright, but they do not have the capacity to connect themselves to the grid, let alone pay bills regularly.
“Very many people had high expectations because power had just come (sic) and they assumed that almost every household would get power. Unfortunately, it is not the case because you know power is relatively expensive to get,” said Martin Mugabi, the resident district commissioner of Kanungu.
REA officials say the cost of installation is Shs400,000 and Shs 500,000, which Kanungu boss Kasya says is out of reach of most of the locals in her area. “The initial cost of installation is not simple by our people’s standards,” she said.
While electricity consumption statistics for rural Uganda are still hard to come by, the amount of electricity used across the country – where an additional six per cent increase in rural population has raised the total national electricity access to 14 per cent – power usage figures tell a miserable story.
According to the REA manager for Project Development and Management, Godfrey Khaukha Werikhe, Uganda still has one of the lowest per capita electricity consumption rates in the world.
SYMBOL OF CONTRADICTIONS
With electricity consumption rates still low even in urban areas, some analysts fear that the rural electrification infrastructure could be yet another symbol of the contradictions in public policy implementation: the government develops a foresighted plan but cannot effectively implement it to uplift the intended beneficiaries.
Dickens Kamugisha, the executive director of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), a local non-governmental energy resource consumption watchdog, says if the government intended to provide electricity to stimulate development in rural areas – as REA chief executive Godfrey Turyahikayo said in the first part of this series – then it should have taken the central role in providing the service.
Instead, Kamugisha notes, the government has outsourced the implementation to profit-driven private companies that end up leeching the poor of their meagre resources rather than propping them up.
“The government pulled out of the electricity sector [by unbundling the Uganda Electricity Board] and at the same time you are saying you want to go and help the poor. So, who was to help the poor; the private companies or the government?” he asked.
In Kanungu and Amuru, private companies such as Ferdsult, which won multi-billion shilling contracts to extend power lines and connect locals to the grid, are installing pre-paid meters which require users to purchase units before they can access electricity. AFIEGO’s Kamugisha says commercialised arrangement defeats the purpose of trying to prop up rural Ugandans by providing them with electricity.
“By using pre-paid meters, you are saying the peasants should first pay and then get the power. You are assuming that the peasant already has money. So, if one is doing a small business, you are not even saying let him first do the small business, get some profits to pay for power,” argues Kamugisha.
He added: “If you want to help transform the poor people, it must be the government to take that responsibility to give the service so that they use it to increase their capacity and then they can start paying. That is the entry point for private companies to come in because private companies want return on investment from day one.”
The manager in charge of energy for rural transformation at REA, Medard Muganzi, told The Observer that the government had managed to circumvent the connection problems by offering free connection materials to increase access to electricity, as well as connection subsidies funded by donor partners such as Norway and the World Bank.
Muganzi explained that these programmes, which have successfully been implemented in Mubende, Kyenjojo and Kanungu districts, benefit households and businesses situated near power lines but have remained unconnected for 18 months or more from the time the lines were commissioned.
“The government obtained additional financing to buy connection materials and avail them to the service providers so that they can connect these people and enable them to pay in instalments rather than pay the money upfront. Once people have paid, the service providers can return the money into a revolving fund at REA, which can still be used to buy materials and we continue the cycle,” he said.
However, Kamugisha believes that such a stop-gap measure still leaves residual challenges, which will continue to hound the project and could lead to its failure since the rural poor could still not have the capacity to pay for tariffs.
“You are helping people to connect with subsidies but that is not the only obstacle,” he said. “If you connect me, then what? Does subsidising the connection without subsidising the tariff solve my incapacity to pay for power?”
In late August 2014, while launching a phase of the rural electrification project to cover the five districts of Mbarara, Bushenyi, Ibanda, Sheema and Mitooma, President Museveni told residents to improve their household income so that they are able to pay for electricity.
“It is good to have electricity but it is also important to make sure that each household has got a source of income. Otherwise, how will you pay for electricity without an income?” Museveni asked Bushenyi locals.
With even the president expressing fears that rural Ugandans may not be able to pay for the electricity that has been extended to their localities, analysts such as Kamugisha say REA needs to carefully re-think the next phase of the rural electrification project to avoid building infrastructure that could end up unused.
In the final part of this series, we look to the future for what the next 10-year phase of the rural electrification project promises to achieve and whether the government has re-jigged its plans and put in place the requisite infrastructure to deliver on its promises.
This series is the maiden product of “The Watchdog,” a centre for investigative journalism at The Observer. The articles were produced with the support of grant funding from the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME).