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Giving power to the people.

A public outcry over the cost of power in Botswana recently forced the Government to reduce tariffs by 10%. The country's sole energy utility, the Botswana Power Corporation however, says it needs to make profits. ANVER VERSI paid a visit to BPC's headquarters in Gabarone.

A sure way of raising the blood-pressure of your average Batswana is to mention the cost of water and electricity. Water is always in short supply in this dry country and therefore bound to be expensive. The absence of fast flowing rivers means that electricity has to be thermally generated. This factor, added to the vastness of the country has conspired to make power in Botswana the most expensive in the sub-region.

Last year, the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) made a net profit of P60.2m, a whopping increase of 62.5% over the previous year. Mr Kitane Sitole, the Chief Executive of the Corporation, defended the huge profit.

He told me the Corporation's pricing policy, unlike those of other utilities, was cost effective. The large profit was the result of increased demand for electricity, healthy returns from cash surpluses and a major reduction in operating costs.

"Our pricing strategy is designed to reflect costs, raise revenue to service debts and retain funds for future expansion," he said. Commenting on the strong public criticism over electricity prices, Mr Sithole admitted: "We have been accumulating profits and this is sometimes embarrassing". He was quick to emphasise that electricity tariffs have not been raised since October 1993 even though inflation had soared to 11%.

Nevertheless, the hue and cry over the cost of power had reached such a crescendo, with the high tariff even being blamed for businesses shutting down and relocating to other countries in the sub-region, that the Government finally bowed to pressure and cut prices by 10%.

Power to all

At the time of independence, most of Botswana's power was supplied by South Africa's Eskom. The sole local generator of electricity was the Selebe-Phikwe power station which was commissioned in 1973. Selebe-Phikwe has now outlived its usefulness and is in the process of being decommissioned. Almost all of Botswana's power now comes from the Morupule Power Station which generated some 916 GWh last year. For fuel, Morupule depends on Botswana's vast reserves of coal. To cope with surges in demand, BPC imports power from South Africa and Zambia via Zimbabwe.

BPC's Mr Sithole says that while the corporation's overriding priority is to ensure that it continues to be a profitable, efficient and reliable utility, its main function is to spread the electricity grid throughout the country so that all citizens are connected.

The grid at present runs in roughly a straight line from Gabarone in the South to Francistown in the north. Branch connections take power to Orapa in the centre of the country and Maun, an increasingly important gateway to the Okavango Delta, in the north. Two 132 kV transmission lines from Eskom in South Africa, will ensure that the southern part of Botswana is fully catered for.

As part of its strategy of taking power to the people, the BPC has been carrying out a far-flung village electrification programme. Given the size of the country and the often scattered settlements, the project has been both expensive and time consuming.

The corporation set itself the target of electrifying at least seven villages every year. This year, the pace quickened and no less than 12 villages have been connected to the grid. Out of the 395 odd villages in the country, 85 now have power.

Connecting remote villages to the national grid is one thing, paying for the use of the electricity and collecting the revenue is quite another In an effort to soften the costs of connections, rural customers are encouraged to form groups of four or more and pay 10% of the connection fee. The balance is repaid over 120 months.

New billing system

The BPC has also upgraded its billing procedure using the Canadian Harris System. Meter readers are armed with microprocessors programmed to ensure that no customers are missed out during their rounds. Readings are automatically entered into a central commuter and any unusual usage blips quickly identified.

"We are very happy with the system," said Mr Sithole. "It has increased our revenues considerably and also ensured that customers are not wrongly billed".

While Botswana's domestic electrification programme continues to develop, more exciting regional projects are beginning to take shape. The Southern Africa Power Pool, which aims initially to connect all the Southern African countries to a giant grid and then extend it to encompass the whole continent, is one of the most ambitious projects in the world.

"I am eager and excited about the Power Pool," says Mr Sithole. "It could revolutionise Africa by providing cheap power to virtually everybody everywhere". Construction of a 400 kV line from Matimba in South Africa to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe began last year. The line, widely regarded as the harbinger of the Power Pool crosses Botswana near Silebe Phikwe. BPC has already undertaken the construction of a sub-station near Silebe Phikwe to tap into the line.

The sub-station should be completed by 1998 and when commissioned, should be able to satisfy, along with the other existing connections, all of Botswana's load requirements until 2007.
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Title Annotation:Botswana: The Jewel In Africa's Crown; Botswana Power Corporation
Author:Versi, Anver
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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