You get what you paid for. But at Umeme, that might not be the case.
You get what you paid for. But at Umeme, that might not be the case. From delayed connections, to load shedding and billing complaints, customers seem to be irritated, Carol Natukunda reports
Nobert Musisi had never thought he would offer a bribe to get a service. That was until he set out to have a power connection. He would later discover that nothing would shift without paying an extra coin to middlemen.
It was in December 2013. Musisi had completed building his house along the Entebbe highway and done all the wiring. All he needed was to light up the house. He went to one of the Umeme customer care offices (branch name withheld) for inquiries.
“A gentleman at the counter, which had a sign post ‘new connections’, told me to go behind the offices and pick the list of requirements and forms. The man at the photocopier gave me the forms and asked me whether or not I had someone to help me with my papers. I told him I had one. But I was lying. I did not want to use any middleman,” Musisi narrates.
Upon filling the form in triplicate and submitting all the necessary documents, Musisi says the official told him that a surveyor would be coming to survey his plot.
Two weeks later, the surveyor inspected Musisi’s plot and did all the necessary documentation regarding the area. Musisi claims the surveyor then asked him for a “commission” of sh150,000.
“I declined to give it to him, but he told me point black that if I did not give him a commission, I would not have all my forms filled up and cleared. He left. I started getting worried. Would my papers reach the Umeme office?”
About a week later, Musisi’s fears were confirmed when he went back to the Umeme office. “The first official I had previously talked to at the counter told me that the papers were not yet on his table from the surveyor. I waited for months and the story was the same.”
Musisi soon got frustrated. “I decided to get new forms and fill them, but when I went back to the photocopier, the man told me I did not have to do so because it would be the same surveyor who they would give my papers and he would still frustrate me.
He (the photocopier man) told me that my forms must be in the system. Since he seemed so sure of himself, I gave him sh20,000 to go and check for me. I learnt that he was dealing with the official at the counter and would, therefore, access the system. Some customers I talked to claimed that the photocopier guy is the one who receives the money on behalf of the man at the counter since the latter cannot receive money across the counter,” Musisi narrates.
A few minutes later, the ‘photocopier man’ brought Musisi the reference number.
“I went back to the counter and the man told me that the reference number was okay, but that there were still some issues I had to sort out with the surveyor,” he says.
Up to this time, Musisi says he had not obtained the particulars of the said surveyor.
“I asked the ‘counter man’ for the surveyor’s number or his name, but he declined to tell me. I went back at the photocopier man to get the surveyor’s contacts. He only gave me his number. When I called the number, he (surveyor) told me to give him fuel of sh50,000 in addition to the sh150,000 he had already asked me to give him.
That would make it sh200,000 in total. By this time, I was so desperate. I had nothing to do apart from giving in to the offer. I needed power in my house. I waited a bit and he actually showed me the forms. He then told me I would find the details in the computer after one week,” narrates Musisi.
“When I went back to the Umeme office, I was shocked when, on reaching the counter, the same officer told me that my papers were long overdue. It was now about nine months since I had started the process. Because I have a job I report to daily, there were days it was hard for me to come. I did not have time to make follow-ups. So time was elapsing fast.
Anyway, I asked the ‘counter’ man what I should do and he told me to repeat the process. I could not believe it. I was still in a state of confusion when I met another gentleman at the photocopier. He told me to look for sh100,000. He promised he would talk to the ‘counter’ officer to allow me use the same papers that I had. I was getting desperate. I had nothing to do, but to accept. I gave him the money and waited,” recalls Musisi.
He remembers waiting for about two hours that day, before this third nameless photocopier man came back. He reportedly told him to join the queue at the counter.
“The line was long, and the ‘counter man’ finally accepted my papers,” he says.
Fifteen minutes later, Musisi would be in another queue, paying the connection fee of sh326,000.
After three weeks, Musisi says he received a call from a man who wanted to bring the electric pole near his residence. He wanted to know whether he was at home. Musisi was in the neighbourhood, but did not want to miss the chance. “Yes, I am at home,” he told the person on the other end of the line.
“The person told me he needed ‘his milk’ in order to bring the pole. I asked how much and he told me sh150,000. I bargained until we finally agreed on sh120,000. He brought the pole, but before fixing it, he told me to give him his ‘promised milk’.
I hesitated, but he showed me about 15 papers of those he was supposed to connect to power. He had five poles on the truck. He told me if I did not ‘behave’, he would take the pole to another person.”
Musisi was not about to let this chance go through his hands.
“I bribed him. Finally, I had my power on November 22, 2014 – nearly a year of pacing up and down,” narrates Musisi
Umeme customers at the Wandegeya office in Kampala
Long queues at Umeme
Sunday Vision randomly picked on the Wandegeya Umeme customer care office in Kampala near the Bwaise roundabout on January 6. I want to ask about power connection procedures. As soon as I step inside the office, I realise the place is filled with clients. I want to proceed to the reception on my right, but I have no way through. You would think the office is under siege with several people queuing up to be attended to.
The metallic seats at the “New Connection and Reconnection” area are all occupied. On the left side are two tellers specifically for the clients clearing their bills. The queues keep growing longer. I ask the askari if there is a way I can get through to the counter. He asks me what I want.
“Connection process,” I tell him.
“Oh, that one! Just go out and turn left. There is a photocopy at the corner. You have to pay sh200 to get the list. Then come with all the requirements on that list and you will begin from there.”
After getting the list, I get back inside the office. I notice three vacant metallic seats near the noticeboard. I sit and switch on my phone video recording. Two men are speaking in hush-hush tones. “I started applying for a connection at the beginning of December 2014. But look!”
The other shakes his head and mutters: “If you do not have money here, things will not shift.”
A customer lining up for the bills mutters: “Ebya wano tobimanyi?” which sarcastically means the service is corrupted. The two men I am sitting with nod in agreement.
I keep my recorder on, capturing voices here and there. But with the office fully packed, the murmurs are buzzing. On the list I had earlier picked are several requirements including the passport, the driving permits, the wiring certificate, land title and sketch map to one’s residence. Since I have neither of these, I take a few shots using my phone and leave as soon as I can.
Complaints about the power company on social media
On Umeme’s Facebook wall, the complaints are numerous.
On January 13, 2015, one Katumwa posted: “I have waited for seven months and completed all my payment. Connect my home. My account is 7338553.”
Most of the complaints, however, range from the poor customer care relations to the newly-introduced Yaka system.
On January 1, 2015, Gift posted: “Please Umeme. It has been three weeks now and my Yaka is still faulty. … I had a dark Christmas and New Year!”
Another customer, Innocent Mutabazi, posted: “(acc 203597436) I got Yaka as replacement for my metre on 17/12/14, but since then I have no power from 7:00pm up to 11:00pm. I called customer care, but nothing has been done.”
At 10:49pm on December 30, 2014, Julie, another customer, wrote: “Kindly stop playing on our minds, saying the technician is in the neighbourhood for the last three days. No one is turning up! Your helpline cannot go through!”
Two days earlier, on December 28, 2014, one David Mulangu had posted on Umeme Limited’s wall:
“There has been no power in Kisugu Church Road zone for 10 hours and you still do not know what the matter is. You people need to get your act together!”
For Derio Wafula, the power blackout rubbed him the wrong way on Christmas day. “ But you people, do enjoy switching off power or what? How come you do not forget to bring bills every end of month?” he wondered.
And on January 13, 2015, Christine Aanyun wrote: “Dear Umeme, I did not commit a crime for my power to be off. Look into complaint number m-172-2648. I spoke to Jennifer, Martha and Abdallahziz and Ronald. I am waiting for your call back.
Shocking that it takes you an hour to call back a customer who is on ‘prepaid.’ You are the boss and I am patiently waiting for the service that I have paid for in advance.”
A Umeme user loading units onto his Yaka account
Umeme speaks out
According to the list of requirements obtained from one of the Umeme offices, the connection fee is as follows:
Inspection fee: sh41,300,
Connection fee: sh98,000
Pole Service: sh326,000.
When contacted, Stephen Ilungole, the Umeme media manager, confirmed that these were the official rates for a new power connection.
Ilungole says a new connection should ideally take three to five working days “if all factors are constant”. But there were a few cases where there were likely to be delays.
“When the customer requires permission from a neighbour to pass the power lines on the neighbour’s, maybe the connection requires pole service and when there are delays in clearing materials required for new connections from Uganda Revenue
Authority. The latter is very rare,” Ilungole explains.
Asked about the bribery claims and the brokers, Ilungole warns customers against using a third party to be connected.
“Brokers are everywhere, but we have always cautioned our customers against dealing with third parties and to report all those demanding bribes on our confidential and toll free-line: 0312360777. There is no need to engage third parties to get connected,” he states.
On the customer care centres that charge money to photocopy a list of requirements, Ilungole condemns the vice.
“The list is given out free from any of our offices across the country. Customers should avoid dealing with impersonators, lurking outside our offices. They should deal with our official customer care executives in the offices. All our employees wear Umeme official identifications,” he says.
Asked about the poor customer etiquette, Ilungole admits it is a challenge that is still being addressed.
“We are not there yet, but we are doing everything within our means to offer world-class services to our customers. There are always challenges in accessing customers’ locations, normally due to poor directions. Our technicians are always more than willing to help, but get lost when they are poorly directed.”
He further rubbishes claims that Umeme “enjoys switching power on and off” when most needed.
“The ‘on and off’ ‘game’ referred to by our customers are normally planned refurbishment works aimed at improving network reliability, safety and efficiency of supply to customers. We deal in a dangerous commodity and we cannot do maintenance works while the supply is on. That would tantamount to murder,” explains Ilungole.
About Yaka, he maintains that it is the best metering system for domestic and commercial customers.
“ It empowers the customers to manage their power consumption, which translates into how much they pay at the end of the day. The only issue we shall continue to sensitise our customers on is the management of the postpaid arrears after conversion to Yaka. Otherwise, the cost of a unit remains at sh518 for both yaka and postpaid customers,” he states.
Ilungole is, however, quick to note that there are two “unfortunate” issues customers fault Yaka for. “They are: the 18% VAT charge per purchase, the recovery of the 30 units we advance a customer at conversion and the sh3,336 monthly service. This is what makes customers become suspicious of Yaka, but our teams are always readily available to give information to help customers understand the service better,” he says.
Umeme says they are working out public and customer relations programmes for the front desk and field staff to improve service delivery and the way they communicate to customers.
The public is also encouraged to deal with only designated employees and not third parties. Also report any dubious character to district officials or the 0312360777 toll free line. It is operated in confidence.
About the long queues, Ilungole urges the public to make use of online banking, which entails ‘TouchPay bill payment solutions’ to ease and eliminate queues in the banking halls. He also says over 25 commercial banks are partnering with them to ensure customers can pay their bills.
“We have also partnered with telecoms that run mobile money platforms,” says Ilungole.
The pain of getting an electricity connection