Power to the people

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LECThe Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) has come a long way since its establishment by government in 1969. From supplying a handful of consumers at its inception to the giant parastatal it has become today, the importance of the LEC’s mandate of providing much-needed energy cannot be over-emphasized as highlighted by its acting Managing Director, Mr Tankiso Motšoikha, in this wide-ranging interview with Lesotho Times (LT) business reporter, Bereng Mpaki.

LT: Could you please give us a brief background of the Lesotho Electricity Company and its mandate?

Motšoikha: The Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) was established in 1969 with the mandate to generate electricity, transmit, distribute and supply electricity works throughout Lesotho in a manner calculated to satisfy customer-needs for safe use and quality electricity services, at competitive and affordable prices.

To date, the company has managed to cover all 10 districts of the country.

LT: What are the company’s connection targets?

Motšoikha: The targets we have to meet are set by the government as the sole-owner of the company. We are expected to connect at least 15000 new customers every year. And in the last financial year, we connected 22000 customers. We are proud to say we meet this target regularly, and we are around 38 percent in terms of connecting the people. The government’s long-term target is that by the year 2020, we should be at a connection rate of 50 percent of the people, and we are confident that at the rate we are going, we will reach that target ahead of time.

LT: How many customers, both domestic and business, have the LEC connected to power to-date? 

Motšoikha: In March this year, our overall figure of connected customers was 203,000. So I believe by now, we are at around 210, 000. Most of these are domestic customers who were 192, 000 in March and by now, could be around 200,000. 

LT: Are we likely to experience load-shedding this winter? And again, what brings about this situation?

Motšoikha: Load-shedding was last experienced in this country in 2008 when we were sourcing electricity from ‘Muela Hydropower Station and South Africa only. Although load-shedding affected South Africa last year, were we able to avoid it by buying additional power from Mozambique.

So we do not expect to experience any load-shedding this year especially considering the fact that South Africa seems to have addressed the challenges that had led to them experiencing power shortages last year.

And maybe I should indicate that it is our wish, as a country, that we should not experience it again because we are currently taking measures to increase our domestic power-generation efforts.

For example, there is a plan to set-up a power-generation station through a project run by the private sector.

The project has already completed the tendering stage and the next step is to announce the winners of the contract. We are expecting the power-station project to be completed in time for next year’s winter.

This will help in reducing the amount of power we import thereby reducing the costs we incur in the process.

LT: I understand the company is facing increased demand and the question is: are you ready as LEC, to meet this surge? And exactly how much power is needed to meet local consumption at the moment?

Motšoikha: For every new connection made, that means we have to import more electricity from outside the country since the electricity we generate locally is not enough to meet the country’s demand. This will happen until we can generate our own sufficient power to meet our demand. We currently need about 150 megawatts (MW) to meet our consumption needs.

  1. LT. How much power do we currently import?

Motšoikha: We import over 50 percent of the power we consume. This happens mostly during winter, but declines significantly in summer.

LT: Since one of LEC’s functions is to generate power, how much power is currently being generated by the company?

Motšoikha: LEC currently generates about 2 MW at Mantšonyane mini power station, with the other domestic generation coming from ‘Muela Hydropower Station which give us 72 MW. The rest of the power consumed locally is imported from South Africa and Mozambique.

LT: Reliable electricity supply is an important aspect of your operations. How far would you say the LEC meets this requirement?

Motšoikha: We define reliability in two ways. Number one, in transmission network, the standard says we must be 99 percent reliable but we are mostly at 99.5 percent. And on the distribution network side, the standard is 95 percent but we are 98 percent most of the time. So we are meeting the standards of reliability but we still believe that we can improve on that if we can replace our aging infrastructure.

LT: What major challenges does LEC face in dispatching its mandate?

Motšoikha: The biggest challenge we have has to be importing additional power from outside the country which comes at a very high cost for us than if we were generating our own electricity as a country.

The other challenge we face is vandalism whereby members of the public steal our electrical infrastructure like cables and cutting our poles.

The other challenge we have is illegal connections to the power grid which leads to loss of revenue.

We also face a challenge of lack of street demarcation which is necessary for locating our customers when they call for assistance. This, coupled with the poor status of our roads, slows down our response time when there is a fault to be attended.

We have another challenge whereby members of the public erect buildings directly under powerlines which poses danger to them.

We also have the challenge of aging infrastructure which needs to be replaced because in its current state, it can cause power-disruptions. The challenge here is we need a lot of money for that to happen.  However, we are mobilising efforts to get the necessary funds to gradually replace the old equipment.

LT: How do some of these challenges affect the company’s operations?

Motšoikha: The challenges affect us very negatively. For instance, on vandalism, resources that could have been utilized in other developments are used to replace the vandalised equipment. Again, vandalism makes us lose out on the opportunity to sell electricity units when the infrastructure is not working. In short, some of these challenges cost us millions of maloti.

LT: What measures does LEC employ to address the challenge of illegal connections?

Motšoikha: There are internal procedures and inspections we employ to address this problem. And when we discover who is responsible, there are penalties to be paid. When it is our own employee, we impose even heavier penalties.

However, we have recently incorporated the police into our system to help us with investigations, and we believe this will help us in the end.

LT: Power is critical to the wellbeing of the people, but many believe your annual increase in tariffs could eventually deprive them of this very important resource. Is there a way in which access to power can be balanced with affordable rates?  

Motšoikha: Until such a time that we generate sufficient power and our prices are solely be determined by the Lesotho Electricity and Water Authority (LEWA) that will not be easy because the reason our prices are constantly on the rise is due to the increasing prices with which we import from ESKOM and EDM.

The worst part is we buy electricity from Mozambique in US dollars which becomes more expensive when our currency is performing poorly like it is at the moment. So when we generate our own electricity as a country, we will have stable prices that would be adjusted marginally.

LT: LEC has travelled a long journey to where it is today. What are some of the milestones the company has clocked along the way?

Motšoikha: Apart from our growth in expertise in serving our customers over the years, our client-base has grown rapidly over the past few years. For instance, between 1969 and 2001, we had about 20,000 customers but from that time to the present, that figure has grown to over 200,000, which is quite remarkable.

Those figures translate into 2000 connections per month now up from about 400 per month in the past.

Like I said earlier on, our network reaches all the 10 districts of the country although we would still like to expand further on it.

Also, through partnerships with telecommunication service providers in the country, we have managed to improve customers’ convenience in purchasing electricity units through mobile money platforms.

LT: What does the future hold for LEC as far as consumers are concerned?

Motšoikha: We will continue to connect people to the power grid as required.  But as I have already indicated, it is necessary to improve our infrastructure first for better services to the customers.

We are also involved in network-expansion in order to reach remote areas where we are currently not visible.  We also have plans to open more offices in strategic locations in order to assist our customers in those areas.

For example, soon we are going to open new offices in Mphaki which is a remote area, and doing so will allow us to respond quickly to their needs.

Again, we want to open a new office close to the mines since they are some of our important customers and should not have power-outages for prolonged periods.

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