A strange name for an event none of us had any idea about and here we were wondering, about the hushed event for social media and bloggers, online buffs as some may term us, tweeps and other names. So tea party it was to be with a Twitter hashtag #teapartyug (https://twitter.com/#!/search/%23teapartyug). At the Sheraton hotel, starting at 3:00pm EST (12 noon GMT) on December 8, 2011. How do you dress for such an event I wondered, but to be on the safe side took along my trusted Navy blue jacket and tie in the blistering heat of the December sun, we had even forgotten that it had been raining non stop a couple of days before.
5 past the hour and there I had arrived, fashionably late I should say, and there it was UMEME Ltd (http://www.umeme.co.ug/), the company contracted to distribute electricity in Uganda, and Google. There were screens all over the place, about six in total all hooked up to show the proceedings via Apple Macs (am not a fanboy, but they are considered the next best thing since fried rice). Out I pulled my laptop and turned on the wireless signal, saw many networks and a TeaParty_UG was there so I connected, and it was surprisingly fast. Looking around I saw Roke Telkom staff connecting routers and so I knew who the providers were. Checking me battery I was only at 20% so I started looking around for a plug to get some juice. Being a networking event I well started talking to the other folks as we waited to hear what the big do was.
Simon Kaheru the MC well started things flowing quickly and smoothly laying the ground rules and 4 tweets later and well the presentations started. First was Simon Kisubi, Stakeholder Manager, who gave us an overview of UMEME’s role in the power distribution lifecycle, other players and the challenges they face. I had one tab of my browser on my timeline and the other watching the hashtag to keep track of what was happening, and a lot was at the time. By my third cup of black coffee, no sugar as I was taught to enjoy it, and given that I had not had a cuppa for over 7 weeks, well I was wide awake, the D&A session started.
What was impressive was that the executive management of UMEME was present including the Chief Executive Officer, and they were fielding the questions and providing well articulated and knowlegeable answers which seemed to appease the tweeps, but also got more insteresting as the street conspiracy theories were brought up along the way.
One angle of tweets which made sense was that, if you go to the supermarket to buy milk and eggs and u find them rationed or none at all whom do u blame, the farmer who provided few or no eggs (the electricity generation company), the transporter who carried the few eggs they got (the electricity transmission company) or the owner of the market who sells what he is provided with (UMEME).
The 10 major points and clarifications some new, some old which came out of the briefing are:
1. UMEME only distributes the power that it receives from generation and transmission. It gets estimates on a month-by-month schedule, but rations power on an hour-by-hour schedule to prevent network meltdown.
2. UMEME has no local, Ugandan, share holders unlike what the conspiracy theories on the streets
3. UMEME has met and exceeded the targets set out in their mangement contract
4. The high small consumer tariffs are subsidized by the Government of Uganda due to the use of thermal power generation, and UMEME does not receive a cent of the subsidy which goes directly to the generation companies.
5. Large consumers receive concessions if they use power at low usage times, between midnight and 5:00am, which is not available to small consumers due to the amount of work needed to monitor usage and the low usage numbers
6. Disconnections are only made based on balances from a previous bill and not the current period’s usage basically if u do not pay your bill in net 30 you can be cut off. Disconnections are only done Monday to Thursday, and not over the weekends. UMEME operations are being fine tuned to ensure that reconnections are completed with 24 hours of clearing outstanding bills and reconnection fees.
7. Estimation of bills is done based on previous usage and is between 5% – 20% of previous usage. The algorithm is being tweaked to make it more accurate, but the estimates would cancel out when actual readings are taken. The estimation is common in the business and in Europe up to 40% of bills are estimated compared to about 15% in Uganda.
8. Technology solutions are being put in place to enable electronic deliver of bills and balances, and electronic payment of bills to smoothen the user experience.
9. UMEME helpline is available 24 x 7 to support consumers
10. Despite load shedding the bills remain the same, because the usage patterns for the available supply have changed to ensure maximization of usage when the power is available especially ironing, cooking etc.
My argument and take is that UMEME is the face of the power industry (just like the Front Desk Staff are the frontline of any company), and they have to up their game in order to appease the customers that they deal with. One way is to improve communications; they are already doing a good job with thrice daily updates via radio stations, twitter and Facebook from the Incident room through the Load Shedding Project Manager, who is the face in this particular crisis. The idea is to open more channels for providing information and crowd source the collection and distribution of information so that it can reach all concerned. This has been successfully implemented in other areas around the world and communities have been built around data provided for public consumption.
Based on the information that we gleamed from the fast Q&A session, which reminded me of a wild west shoot out, it was clear that UMEME is interested in hearing what the customers have to say and has initiatives in place to try and alleviate the major problems faced by the consumers it serves. As a first meeting I should say that it was productive, the million dollar question being was it beginner’s luck or is this the first of many initiatives to engage the stakeholders, SMEs and small consumers who bear the brunt of power shortages.
An exciting afternoon it was and looking forward more of such engagements in the future.