Umeme Limited is Uganda’s main electricity distribution company, licensed to distribute and supply electricity to customers. However, in its mandate that involves; operation, maintenance and upgrade of electricity distribution infrastructure, electricity retail and provision of related services, it has suffered severe setbacks mostly in Mukono due to Vandalism.
Dr. Mark Mutebi (not real name), runs a clinic in Mukono Municipality. He offers diversified laboratory services to the communities in and around the municipality.
All the laboratory services and other clinical records done using computers, are dependent on reliable electricity supply.
However, lately, Dr. Mutebi, like many other residents in the municipality, is not a happy man after transformer vandals hit the municipality, leaving up to 18 transformers, estimated at over sh600m damaged.
“We are stuck. We cannot do anything, yet there are so many patients in need of our services. In business terms, we have lost so much money because of the effects of vandalism,” Dr. Mutebi said.
The rampant vandalism of transformers is higher in Mukono Municipality. This has forced power distributor Umeme to organize a stakeholder engagement workshop today in Ridar Hotel, Mukono in a desperate move to find solutions to the vice.
The meeting is a follow-up of a similar one conducted in March last year. It is targeting local and political leadership and all the key security personnel.
Transformer vandalism is rampant because the thieves want its oil, which is said to be sold as cooking oil and cosmetics all with dangerous consequences because the oil is toxic. Some are vandalized for copper cables.
Sources said the appetite for fast foods and beauty products and the booming scrap business is also not helping matters.
Abbey Gwaivu, the Umeme customer service engineer for greater Kampala, said the vandals targeted copper cables in the 18 damaged transformers.
“The rest of Kampala is still safe. We are engaging the communities to take ownership of the network infrastructure by protecting the transformers,” Gwaivu said.
Umeme currently incurs costs running up to billions of shillings annually in the replacement of vandalized infrastructure.
Vandalism has also been reported by the telecommunication companies, electricity transmission company, roads authority and local government property.
In the past, a number of vital distribution transformers for the Bweyogerere Industrial Park, Namanve and Mukono have been vandalized.
Consequently, supply to Seeta, Mukono, Kalagi, Mbalala, Katosi, Nagalama, Nakifuma and surrounding areas was interrupted for long hours, while Umeme teams replaced and repaired the damage caused by the vandals.
“This is frustrating and bogging down our efforts to refurbish the network for reliable supply. The money we are spending in repairing and replacing vandalized equipment would have created a greater customer experience if it is injected in network refurbishment,” Kalist Okello, the Umeme integrity manager, said.
He appealed to the public to report those involved in power theft and vandalism to the nearest Police station or local authorities.
“We need all the public support in fighting against this vice. More often than not, most of the unplanned outages experienced by our customers are a result of acts of vandalism. Vandalism causes frustration to our legitimate customers through prolonged power outages,” he said.
Top Umeme officials have continuously said vandalism was pulling down progress in infrastructure improvement.
“Vandalism and power thefts are a national problem, which amounts to an economic crime. It causes frustration to our customers through prolonged power outages, caused by the criminals,” Selestino Babungi, the Umeme managing director, said recently, urging the government to holistically address the underlying problem across the affected sectors through deterrent legislation.
Babungi noted that the continued theft and vandalism of the electricity infrastructure was heavily costing the sector.
On average, Umeme loses an estimated sh100b annually in power theft and vandalism.
A 1% energy loss reduction translates into about sh10b in saving.
Despite the huge loss to the economy, the current Electricity Act, 1999, is not deterrent enough to curb the vice.
Okello explained that the penalties for power theft and illegal connections in Uganda range from caution, community service, to maximum of sh2m fine or a three-year jail sentence.
Okello says it is time to speak out and watch over your neighbour’s activities since they can directly impact on your electricity supply reliability, the tariffs and more importantly your safety.
“Truth is you cannot have a reliable and safe power supply or lower tariffs when your neighbours are stealing power and vandalizing the distribution infrastructure,” he says.
Vandalism is also affecting the Uganda Electricity Transmission Company, Uganda National Roads Authority, telecoms and local government councils billions of shillings.
Okello noted that vandalism of transformers affects Umeme’s bottom-line by increasing operations costs.
“Vandalism not only increases the cost of operating the network, it frustrates our dear customers through prolonged outages. Economically, customers may not run their businesses or light their homes,” he said, adding, “The bulk of transformers are imported and their vandalism negates the company’s network expansion drive, through replacement of vandalized equipment.”
Experts said currently, Umeme loses close to US$ 2m per annum, in vandalized network equipment.
Solutions has Umeme come up with to solve the problem
The company has an anti – vandalism strategy that includes use of State security services to detect and investigate the root causes of the menace. Culprits arrested in the act are brought to book.
“We are engaging the legislators to amend the laws for stiffer penalties to the culprits. We also engage the community to safeguard these assets,” Okello explained.
Gwaivu disclosed that the giant utility was in the testing process for dry transformers, without copper or oil, which is a target for the vandals.
“We are also doing network modification to relocate transfers from isolated to visible public places,” he added.