ANGELLO BARYA: What if Hon. Kitutu was wrong on Rural Electrification Coverage?

Minister of Energy and Mineral Development Mary Goretti Kitutu

The Minister of Energy and Mineral Development earlier this month was variously reported by the media that only 7% access to rural electricity has been achieved. 

While visiting Karuma Falls Dam in Kiryandongo on Friday, July 10, Hon, Kitutu Mary is reported to have been chest-thumping for her action of replacing the leadership at Rural Electrification Agency (REA) for merely delivering 7 percent Electricity coverage (or access) to rural communities in the 17 years since the agency was established.

I would like to believe that the good Minister is well briefed by competent officers including her own Permanent Secretary who has been the Board Chairman of the very agency he is supposed to supervise. The same Board of REA had the Permanent Secretary and Secretary to the Treasury as a member for all those 17 years. During the same 17 years, the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Local Government sat on the same Board.

The Hon. Minister makes a significant revelation that should never go without fact-checking and understanding the motive of her selective choice of the party to blame. The Hon. Minister is definitely aware that that the Board of ERA has been chaired by her Permanent Secretary, Robbert Kasande who marries from the same family as Kaliisa Kabagambe the former Permanent Secretary of over 30 years who chaired the Board of REA from inception up to 2016 when he was sacked by the appointing authority.

To understand the Minister’s allegation, one needs to distinguish between rural and urban electrification and to compare how both urban and rural electrification access have fared during the 17 years in question. Urban and peri-urban electrification was initiated years before Uganda’s Independence by UEB. After more than 65 years of urban electrification by access and reliability of supply is still close to a disaster. For convenience the Hon. Minister, probably not well briefed, chooses a number 7% is the percentage of rural areas was initiated with the establishment of REA in 2003.

According to the World Bank Country database for Uganda, access to urban electricity as a percentage of the urban population, has risen from 49% in 2003 to 57.5% in 2018, representing a 17% growth rate in 15 years. During the same period (2003 – 2018) access to rural electricity as a percentage of the rural population rose from 4.2% to 38%, representing an 805% growth rate. Yes, access to rural electricity, as a percentage of the ever exponentially growing rural population, has more than doubled itself; more than 8 times during the 15-year period whose data is available.  

The question that begs answers is: Wwhy is the minister so motivated to look down an agency whose output in numbers is clearly visible and chooses to be silent on access to urban electricity? Without speculation, the answer may lie in the difference between electricity coverage and access. REA has done a commendable work on electricity coverage with power lines extended in almost all districts of Uganda except the island districts of Kalangala (save for Bugala Island) and Buvuma. REA has constructed 25,000 …… kilometers of power lines, of which15,000…….and 10,000 …………kilometers of medium and low voltage lines respectively.

The main challenge to raising access rates is not who is heading REA at any time. It is the high upfront connection costs that are not affordable to most households, most especially in the rural areas. The unit cost of a new connection for a No Pole Service is estimated at UShs. 580,000. The Minister in her world view of low access numbers, conveniently chooses to ignore the details that even bogged down, growth in access to urban electricity.

When REA erects lines to and within rural areas, it hands over the electricity distribution asset to other companies/service providers, including Umeme, to operate those lines. Customers apply for connection from the service provider companies. One of the major reasons why there is low electricity access despite high coverage of electricity lines, is the inability of the service providers to pre-finance and stock connection materials that are enough to sustain connection of new customers for a long period of time.

Even in areas where people have been able to raise funds for connections, the connection has taken longer due to the low pre-financing capacity of connection materials especially on the part of the smaller SPs in the rural areas. In all this, I don’t see how the Minister would fault REA.

Another limiting factor to growing electricity access in rural areas is the high wiring costs incurred by households. Wiring costs consist of material and labour costs. These costs are high, making it difficult for the poor to wire their houses and get connected. Over 50% of rural households may not afford to wire their premises using the conventional wiring approach including earthing. This is compounded by unavailability of wiremen within the reach of many rural communities. Only wiremen licenseds by Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) are supposed to undertake such wiring.

I would not be truthful to the Hon. Minister if I did not mention that there are many sparsely populated settlements. Many of the settlements in rural areas are sparsely populated with low energy consumption, making grid extension and connection economically unviable. Even when REA extends lines to such settlements, too few connections are made by the service providers for reasons I have indicated above.

Lastly and more importantly, the good Hon. Minister keeps silent about the REA spearheaded project to help connect more than 1 million households and businesses, initiated by the same agency she castigates.

It its now public knowledge, that the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development has in planning illegality of borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars and pass them on to a stock exchange-listed private company to implement the new connections project. The business interests around the procurement of new connections equipment could be the reason behind public statements not backed by any believable source of information/data.

REA has been dogged by allegations of corruption, backed by multiple investigations. All investigations and audits have faulted 2 employees who are currently on suspension with a presidential order to the Director CID for their prosecution not being effected.

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If indeed the Minister was serious on cleaning up the REA as she was purported to be doing, she would never have shielded men who have been found by IGG to have mismanaged projects and embezzled funds. Can she wake up the Director CID that the public is watching all the mafia like moves to exonerate people where evidence of graft is overwhelming.

The Minister has instead put all her wrath on Mr. Turyahikayo Godfey, a man who has steered the sector to great achievements reflected in the growth in rural electricity access. She will never mention anything to do with the suspended tycoons whose capacity to wet any beak, is not in doubt.

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