By Sam Stewart Mutabazi
UMEME, the power supply company in Uganda this week announced this that it will exit the market in 2025 as per the concession it signed with government 18 years ago. To many Ugandans, it will be good riddance for UMEME a company that has been part of their tormenting for almost twenty years. Uganda has potential to generate enough electricity for local consumption and for export. With UMEME in charge however, this was never achieved. Instead the country was treated to continuous load shading and unreliable power supply most of the time. UMEME has been a pain in the neck to many. Always coming up with excuses whenever there was a power cut. The company became synonymous with incompetence and inefficiency.
Licensed in 2004 by government of Uganda, UMEME has survived not because of good performance but due to a water-tight agreement it signed that obligated government to pay a hefty amount in form of compensation in case the contract was cancelled. Ugandans complained of poor service but the hands of government were tied. UMEME became comfortable as its service deteriorated. It rarely responded to customer complaints. Consumers went for days and sometimes weeks without power. Umeme was hastily assembled with two major holders. The original owners were, Globeleq of UK and Eskom of South Africa. The company lacked the required experience but even more it was more money minded than providing a service. The company was variously accused of incompetence. It had poor customer care with clients enduring torment without any response to their requests. Electricity was unstable and unreliable.
At the height of power rationing in 2008 Umeme did not take any extra measures to help its clients or at least provide some solution. Many businesses collapsed especially those that depend on electricity for those that couldn’t operate without power. Umeme did not follow the power rationing Rota they themselves would come up with on a weekly basis. They would publish a schedule of days and times certain areas would be without power but these were never followed. Days when certain areas were expected to have electricity could be switched off without explanation or warning from Umeme. Power would be switched off at any time and Umeme would not take it upon themselves to offer an apology to the public.
Businesses resorted to buying and operating diesel and petrol powered generators in order to keep their businesses operating. This pushed their costs through the roof. Running a generator for over eight hours was not feasible for most of them. Some operated at loss. Domestic power was most erratic. Some parts of Kampala would go for a week or more without electricity. People made phone calls but there was hardly response. People got used to the situation of living without power. Those who could afford resorted to solar whole others resorted to other means especially for lighting.
Umeme always blamed lack of enough electricity supply in the country as the cause of power rationing. They said when the country gets enough electricity generated, there would no longer be load shading. This however was never to be the case as in 2012 at the completion of Bujagali power dam, the country was able to produce more power than it would consume. Indeed power rationing considerably reduced in most parts of the country. This was however very short lived as load shading was to come back in full swing less than one year after. The cost of electricity was high for most average consumers but it was also not available most tines.
As we write today in 2022, power rationing has become the norm for most parts of the city. Hardly can any part of the city go for two days with out power outing. This is so in spite of the fact that the government claims that the supply of power in the country is higher than demand. In other words, the country is producing more power than it can consume. Umeme says government has not built the evacuation infrastructure to get power from generation to different parts of the country. Another challenge Umeme had was connecting new customers. Between 2016-2019, Umeme had a backlog of over 30,000 pending customers who had applied to be connected but had not got electricity in that long period. To get connected, Umeme staff required to be bribed. Even after bribing them, one was not assured of getting power. Power connection itself was very expensive.
Normal connection that was not subsidized by government was charged at a flat rate of shillings 750,000 excluding the pole service. Even when one paid, it was not automatic that one would be connected. Without bribing officials, one would go for months without getting a connection. Ugandans will wait for the new power operator in 2025 with abated breath hoping that will offer a much better service than Umeme. The new operator will need to start on a good note in order to win the hearts of the people. Having endured the poor service of umeme, the new operator should take time to learn from the mistakes of umeme and work accordingly to put their customers first. In the meantime, most customers may not miss Umeme when it exits in 2025. They may say its good riddance