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Energy in a box – Prepaid can help solve service delivery challenges in Africa

Rapid urbanisation is widely acknowledged as one of the most pressing challenges of the twenty-first century. A report prepared for the UN shows that more than half of the world’s population now live in cities and towns and this is expected to rise to 75% by 2050. 

The challenge is greater still in Sub Saharan Africa, which is regarded by the UN as the most rapidly urbanising region in the world, with an annual urban growth rate of 4.1%, compared to a global average of just 2%. 

The ability for local government to plan for urban growth is under considerable strain. The provision of utilities like water and electricity is the most basic requirement to maintain social and economic stability. 

In order for municipalities to provide sustainable power to urban populations, they must be in a position to manage not only the production of the energy but also the supply. 

Prepaid sub-meters are independent units inside each household or business. They are connected to the municipal electricity supply and have the means to cut off the supply should the credits run out. They provide landlords and tenants with a transparent real-time reading of the number of credits available to them. These credits can be purchased from vendors and inputted using a unique 20-digit token number. 

Here are four ways that prepaid electricity sub-meters can help solve urban energy supply challenges:

You can’t manage what you can’t measure
At the most basic level prepaid sub-meters give households accurate consumption measurements that are visible to all. At the same time, the usage patterns are also available to suppliers who can work with local government to plan for future supply using accurate, transparent data.

More for everyone
While electricity is not a finite resource, like water, it is a scarce commodity and city managers have to implement sensible consumption reduction incentives to ensure industry, commerce and residential users have enough sustainable, uninterrupted energy. Prepaid sub-meters show a marked reduction once installed. Buying recharge tokens means users are much more aware of their usage habits and adjust their behaviour accordingly. 

Can’t fight with facts
Non-payment is a constant headache for regional administrators and having a post-paid offering can see billing disputes clog up the courts, sometimes for years. What’s more, perception of overbilling or allegations of corruption can lead to mass action and violence. Prepaid billing is absolutely transparent and significantly reduces conflict between citizens and municipalities.

Sustainability built-in
One of the most obvious benefits of prepaid electricity meters is that users are forced to pay for the service before they use it. This ensures that municipalities can easily collect fees that allows them to maintain the grid infrastructure and invest in future developments. Another benefit is that the sale of prepaid tokens is a job-creating opportunity that can help set up small businesses, even in the most vulnerable communities.

Actor and social critic, George Carlin, once flippantly said: “Electricity is really just organised lightning.” In reality, anyone who has worked in the public sector will understand that supplying electricity to cities that are constantly morphing through massive urbanisation is a feat of organisation that borders on alchemy. While prepaid meters can’t solve all these challenges, they do go a long way to making power supply management significantly easier.

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