Sunday, October 17, 2021

Will debt ridden WUC look to tech for survival?

Like elsewhere, Water Utilities Corporation enjoys water supply monopoly in Botswana. The corporation was established in 1970 by an Act of Parliament with a mandate to manage a single project for the supply and distribution of water in what was then called the Shashe Development Area.

The corporation state in its website that the project involved planning, constructing, operating, treating, maintaining and distributing water resources in the country’s urban centres and other areas mandated by the Government.

The mandate also entailed the supply of bulk water to the Department of Water Affairs and the various local authorities for distribution to villages and other small settlements in the country.

Some 48 years later, the corporation’s mandate has since expanded to supplying potable water to all urban centres and villages in the country.

Through the Water Sector reforms Programme (WSRP), WUC is also expected to manage wastewater. The WSRP resulted from a study to rationalize the water sector in Botswana and ensure uniform service levels for all.

Through the project, which was first announced by the then minister of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources – Ponatshego Kedikilwe, the areas that were traditionally covered by the Water Affairs department in terms of supply were transferred to WUC from 2009.

From 2009, WUC’s customer base has grown from 80, 000 to estimated 355 000 by March 2015. At the last count during the time, the corporation was supplying over 80million cubic metres of potable water annually.

DEBT RIDDEN

Unlike in some other form of business, the growth in customer base has however not resulted in growth in revenue for the water utilities corporation. In fact, WUC has been listed amongst the notorious State Owned Enterprise (SOE) year in, year out by both the Minister of Finance during his annual budget speech and other sectors of the society including its own customers.

Its Chief Executive Officer, Mmetla Masire however holds a different view.

“It is not like we are always expecting the government to fund us. We do not sit and expect the government to pump money into the company”, Masire said in the capital Gaborone on Thursday when addressing journalists.

Masire said that the corporation has since put up a debt recovery strategy which he says has proven to be working as there are already experiencing positive results. At the beginning of the year, Masire said, WUC was owed over P1 billion but now the debt level has since been reduced to just about P700 million. The significant reduction in the amount that is owed to the corporation has been attributed to a special team that Masire and his executive team have put up.

“We have assigned a special team that specifically deal with debt recovery. Their daily work includes making follow ups with customers who owe the corporation, putting up payment plan for them as well as ensuring that they pay their dues”, Masire told Sunday Standard on the sidelines of the Thursday press conference.

The team is said to have also been tasked with disconnecting “uncooperative” customers. Lately, the corporation has embarked on a massive disconnection drive for unpaid water bills by both households and businesses country wide.

Some customers blame their lack of payment to wrong billing by the corporation.

“I been told that my water bill is about P13 000 yet I stay alone and spend most of the time away on work related trips. I wonder WUC reached that amount as they cannot even explain this huge amount themselves”, says Patrick Dube, a 40 year old man who resides in Phase 4 location in the capital Gaborone.

WUC executives on Thursday admitted that Dube is not alone. The corporation’s Chief Financial Officer Taboka Muke said that the company usually estimates water usage by its customers based on the previous bill. She added that the estimation can however be done only for a period of three consecutive months, “there after the computer might assign an even higher figure”. She argued customers to allow WUC agents into their homesteads for accurate metre reading. To solve the problem, WUC is said to be looking at the possibility of placing customer metres outside the yards.

Prepaid metres, way to go….?

While WUC’s counterpart, the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) has long rolled out and implemented a prepaid metre billing project, the water utility seems to be slowly adapting to the new ways of doing things.

WUC has already piloted prepaid metre billing in some areas such as Tati Siding and Sua Town but seems reluctant to fully implement the project across the country. Masire classifies the prepaid billing issue as “topical” but says the corporation is not in a position to roll out the project to other areas.

“There are areas where installed the prepaid metres for test purposes. The project was deliberately part of experimentation to inform us as we move forward on how to handle prepaid…which options are there and how deploy them”, Masire said shortly in response to a question from a journalist.

While he was not clear on the time frames, Masire however went on to say that in the long run, the corporation will kick start its smart metre reading project. It is said that the smart metre reading technology has the capability to encompass both prepaid and post-paid billing. The tender for the provision of such technology has already been published according to Masire.

“The decision to go prepaid, if we make it, will be easier as there will be no need for major infrastructure investment as the smart metre reading allows for it. We will be well positioned to go prepaid across the country or in selected areas”, Masire.

While WUC seems to have given prepaid billing less priority for now, elsewhere the technology has been brought to the fore front of economical development and agendas. Increasingly, global citizens are embracing smart homes while national governments are promoting smart technology initiatives, from smart street lighting to smart water and energy saving technologies.

BPC’s testimony on prepaid metres

Given the headache it got from its customers a few years ago, WUC’s counterpart ÔÇô BPC has also since rolled out prepaid billing system.

The power utility company says the implementation of the migration from postpaid to prepaid has actually improved its relationship with customers as they are able to control their household/business consumption of electricity according to the values they invest in buying it.

With prepaid, BPC says it does not have to follow up customers for payments meaning that relationships are more fruitful and skewed towards improving services to the customers.

BPC’s manager for Marketing and Communications Dineo Seleke highly recommend prepaid billing to other utilities in Botswana and Africa as a whole. In the next years, Seleke says BPC will step up the prepaid meters to introduce smart meters which are more advanced.

Seleke says in the future, BPC will also be able to provide the customer with analysis of consumption of electricity per period of the day which will assist the customer to decide on the time of day to allocate most units of power at.

“The introduction of prepaid meters was the first step to provide a better, hassle free service to our customers and into a smart grid solution. Today all of our private customers and a lot of our commercial and Government customers are on prepaid. This resulted in a much better relationship valued customers since the migration dealt away with concerns around wrong billing which is an issue of the past now. BPC in the past also faced long- outstanding payments on postpaid bills and therefore prepaid meters has supported BPC in improvement of financial position as the level of indebtedness to the Corporation by customers decreased”, says Seleke.

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