MONROVIA, Montserrado – Liberia Electricity Corporation customers may complain about the long wait to get connected to the grid, but they should brace themselves for another series of waiting once they get connected – waiting to buy electricity credits.
Customers frequently complain about the inconvenience associated with purchasing credits, which requires them to stand in long queues, especially on Mondays, Saturdays, and on evenings and holidays.
The inconvenience is largely caused by the limited number of vendors around Greater Monrovia.
Until now, LEC has permitted only 12 sales points to operate in and around Monrovia, in addition to its main office at the Waterside Market.
Of those 12 locations, one operated in Joe Bar to serve the entire city of Paynesville, three were stationed in central Monrovia, two were in Sinkor, three were on Bushrod Island, one was in Old Road, and there were two each in Barnesville and Stephen Tolbert Estate.
In line with its promise to create additional vending stations, LEC has opened a new prepaid sales station at Police Academy Junction, which brings to two the number of vendors in Paynesville.
Musa Lumeh, the center’s cashier, told The Bush Chicken that operations there began nearly four months ago.
Instead of the Impox vending machine previously used by other centers, Lumeh said they are using an ordinary smartphone with the vending software installed by vendor Itron’s agents and a small mobile printer to serve their customers.
Aletha Smith, a resident of Paynesville, said standing in long lines to purchase LEC credits can be very annoying, especially for a busy person.
“Most times, when the place is overpacked and I have other things to do, I just leave and consider getting [credits] through Mobile Money purchase,” Smith said.
LEC has made it possible for customers to purchase electricity credits via Lonestar MTN’s Mobile Money service. However, while purchasing electricity through the sales station comes with the disadvantage of standing in long lines, subscribers see it as more preferable to Mobile Money because of the additional charges to the already expensive electricity tariff. Liberians pay almost twice what Sierra Leoneans pay for electricity.
Tannie Jones, a resident of Paynesville, said unlike with the prepaid credits, buying LEC current through Mobile Money requires extra fees for service charges and customers get a lower amount of electricity for the same price, compared to the sale station.
“With the Internet purchase, I can pay US$10 with no other fees attached and get 9.6 kilowatt-hours as compared to Mobile Money where I will add additional fees on the US$10 and get only 9.0 kilowatt-hours,” Jones said.
LEC’s public relations specialist, James Kpargoi, said management is taking steps to increase the numbers of vendors.
Kpargoi said the LEC is also working to ensure that customers can access vending points to purchase credits even on holidays and weekends, as it has observed difficulties encountered by customers.
“We’re trying to increase the number of vendors so that, at any given day, customers and the public will have access to recharging their LEC meters,” he said.
However, the difficulty of the processes in becoming an authorized prepaid sales agent for LEC is perhaps something that holds back many people from venturing into the business.
Becoming a vendor requires being a legally registered Liberian business and applying through a private business representative at International Bank Liberia, who represents LEC and Itron.
Samuel Zoker, a management representative for the Monica’s Business Center LEC Sale station, the other LEC station in Paynesville, said in addition to other minimum qualification criteria, prospective sales agents must deposit a significant amount of money in an account that is jointly managed by LEC and Itron, a South African company that produces the vending machine.
Zoker said the prepaid service is, however, also unique because of its transaction memory. “This guarantees that customers that lost their token numbers can come back to us and get it at no cost to them,” he said. “It gives you the purchase and reprint dates.”
Around the Christmas and New Year holiday season, Zoker said he can get up to 100 subscribers purchasing electricity each day, which can total up to US$2,000 at his center.
Sometimes, however, Zoker said customers can mistake his center for a location to take complaints about the LEC.
He encouraged the corporation to increase the percentage of commission for the vendors and reduce the cost of doing business.
Francis Sorsor, another vendor at Key Hole Junction in Old Road, said while vendors do not pay for the vending machine, they deposit an initial amount of US$2,000 into the joint account of LEC and Itron, which is given to them in electricity credits as a beginning capital.
At first, he said they were receiving a US$25 commission on every sale of US$1,000 as vendors.
He said the amount was however later reduced to US$15 for a US$1,000 sale and has now been reduced to US$10 for the same amount of sales. Vendors are working on a slim margin as the commission used to pay personnel, fuel generators to provide electricity at centers during power outages, and purchasing of receipt papers.
Until incentives are improved and restrictions are reduced, the number of vendors are unlikely to increase and customers will continue to endure the long wait in lines.
Featured photo by Gbatemah Senah