Editorial Comment: ZESA must be proactive in debt collection

Zesa is owed around $1 billion by companies and households in electricity bills.

Since the majority of ordinary people are now having to pay in advance for their electricity and have been paying off their debts through compulsory deductions from these advance payments, there is very little sympathy for those who owe Zesa money. Most people think it is wrong that they pay, however grudgingly, but others are allowed to accumulate debts forever.

So the pressure coming from Energy and Power Development Minister Dr Samuel Undenge for Zesa to improve managerial efficiency and his announcement that firm steps were being taken to collect debts will be welcomed by the majority of Zesa customers.

Accelerating the installation of prepaid meters so that within a few months all households and shops are on this system is one obvious first step. At least with prepaid meters debts stop rising and start shrinking, although it is somewhat horrifying to learn that with the present percentage of prepayments deducted for debt liquidation, some consumers will take more than three years to pay off what they owe.

We think that with a tariff rise, certain very soon, increasing the percentage of payments that go towards debt liquidation might be too high a burden for a majority of the people, some of whom are already neck deep in debt or are living from hand to mouth. However, retaining the present percentage, but with a higher tariff, will see larger debt payments automatically and, so we think this is an acceptable compromise.

It is well known that some major industrial users owe Zesa millions of dollars. These debts arose from a reluctance by Zesa to pull the plug on companies already near the brink of collapse. But that simply defers the problem; it does not solve it. It also affects those who pay their bills regularly when Zesa fails to upgrade its infrastructure for lack of money. Such a state of affairs should not be allowed to continue.

For a start, these debts must not be allowed to rise further, that is all future consumption must be paid for, and Zesa and these huge debtors must sit down and work out payment plans. Perhaps Zesa can just follow the system it has done for prepaid meter customers and add a 20 percent monthly surcharge on bills until the debts are liquidated. It will take time to pay off what is owed, but at least the customer is viable while this is going on.

And then there have been those who consider themselves sufficiently important that they can avoid action by Zesa if they do not pay. Well, Dr Undenge has promised that this unofficial immunity is no longer in place. If you use electricity, you pay.

We can imagine what our power supplies would be like if Zesa had access to that $1 billion over the past few years. For a start, there would be a lot more capacity already on the grid; the water shortages at Kariba would be a problem still but we would be in far better shape.

If that $1 billion could be collected over the next three or so years, then the bulk of the bill for the expansion and refurbishment of Hwange, a project that will nearly triple effective output from that station, could be paid for in cash, or the money could go towards the next big project. We need to remember that thanks to steps already taken by Zesa, there are banks that are ready to lend money on what is now a guaranteed cash flow, but the more that has to be paid back on loans the higher future tariffs will be. So it makes sense to increase the cash upfront where possible.

The major changes now being effected at Zesa reflect a more efficient and professional management. But the minister still needs to push to make sure improvements are maintained and probably still needs to give political support to his top professionals so that they can do their jobs properly without being asked for favours or having to cope with threats.

The last couple of years have seen striking progress. This must continue.

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