Africa is having a sale on electricity


Mega Jeopardy champ and microfinance philanthropist Bob Harris snapped this funny photo in Africa. He says, "This sign was all over Kigali, outside small groceries, gas stations, and any other local equivalent of the convenience store, and it always made me smile. Somehow I couldn't help but imagine they had these big tubs of the stuff sitting around on shelves. You come in, maybe carrying a cardboard box or a plastic bag, and they pour you a bunch, with lots of little sparks dripping down the sides, and you go on your way."



  1. Ehm, yeah. But what does the sign actually mean? Do they charge phones? Do they sell tokens you can use in a home meter?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  2. The square in the sign clearly indicates they’re selling Energon Cubes. And just in time for another shitty sequel…

  3. They have a prepay system.

    Ie: you buy a certain amount of electricity/water/gas or for a certain period.

    Due to the somewhat interesting financial situation in some african countries, they’ve got remarkably high-tech and innovative ways of collecting what they’re owed. Otherwise many wouldn’t pay the bills.

    Clearly a monthly bill doesn’t work in a country without a properly functioning postal service or customers without a bank account. Hence, I’m sure they’ll also have options to pay by cellphone, as these are widespread.

  4. I hate to spoil the surprise, but it’s actually a bunch of things, and it’s pretty cool.

    Keep in mind that a lot of Rwandans are getting electricity before they have anything like what we’d consider standard banking, so RECO (the Rwandan electric company that replaced “Electrogaz”), licenses retailers to sell volts a bunch of ways, including (1) scratch cards that have a code they can SMS to the company, receiving a code back that they can key into their home meter to pre-pay, (2) an e-payment service if the business has a laptop, doing the same thing thru the ‘net, (3) a direct SMS mobile banking service if the retailer has neither a laptop nor scratch cards.

    If you’re curious, the cost for “ordinary consumption” is 112 Rwandan francs (19 cents in US dollars) per kilowatt-hour, about 50 percent higher than the US national average.

    Seeing the transactions, it’s always interesting to see the way East Africa and other parts of the developing world have sort of leapfrogged technologically, the same way a lot of countries have much better WiFi and cell connections than wired service. Mobile banking via cell phone is everywhere in Kenya and Tanzania. I haven’t used it yet, but the way it was explained to me is: I want to buy a tomato from you, I push some buttons on my cell phone, you push a few on yours, boom, you’re paid.

    I still like to imagine the box of sparks better, though.

  5. When I was in South Africa for 3 months, I wondered about the wall boxes everyone had inside their home. It was the electricity box, and you had to slip a pre-paid card into it to turn your electricity on. Apparently, so many people fail to pay their electricity bills there. It makes sense. People regularly kept a few cards on-hand in case they ran out.

    They also provided free condoms in the public restrooms. But that’s another story…

  6. My day job is integrating accounting systems. One of my current clients puts in premium TV channels in Guinea (West Africa for you Americans). They wanted to know if they could run the system without A/R (Accounts Receivable).

    “Why?”, I asked.

    “Because we don’t have any any receivables. All service is prepaid.”

    “You don’t have any monthly statements?”

    “No. When the box turns off, they come back to the office to buy more service.”

    And another part of my consulting is making sure the system keeps running during the frequent and daily power outages. People don’t have credit or electricity, but they have Canal Plus!

  7. I’m pretty sure I’ve listened an English guy I used to work with talk about “electrical boxes” in the student dorm he once lived in that had to be fed with coinage to keep the juice flowing.

  8. PS: comment #6 with all the details is from me, but I forgot to sign in. Because apparently I have never used the internet before. Ahem.

  9. When I rented a flat in England back in ’78, we had to feed 50p pieces into a meter.

    Or is it “metre”? Anyway, always a treat to have 5 pounds in your pocket but no coin.

  10. The African electricity situation is actually unbelievable tragic.

    source: APA, Abuja (Nigeria) May 26th, 2010

    “The World Bank said on Wednesday in Abuja that only 24 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population could access electricity in spite of the various interventions to address the energy crisis on the continent.

    This was disclosed on Wednesday by the bank’s senior specialist on energy Mr. Wagar Haider, during at a workshop on “Policy Framework For Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy’’ in Abuja.

    Haider said that the number of people without access to electricity was projected to rise from 590 million in 2008 to 700 million in 2030 following the population growth on the continent.

    According to him, installed power generation capacity is extremely low at 39 megawatts per million population, resulting in regular blackouts in more than 30 African countries.”

  11. I’m surprised that Mark is surprised by prepaid electricity. It’s nothing particularly new.

    The developing world has plenty of its own ways of solving problems. Expect them to start popping up in the developed world soon.

  12. Actually, you know, as a born African, I find Mark’s tone as well as the headline condescending and maybe somewhat personally insulting.

    I’m also surprised that this Bob Harris could go “all over Kigali” seeing this sign, without bothering to ask anyone what it was about. But maybe that quote is not the whole story?

  13. Ah, I see Bob explained. Fair enough.

    I maintain that the headline, and the way the quote is presented in the main post, comes off as condescending.

      1. Kieran, I concur. I too found the heading and the article rather condescending. Perhaps it’s the generalisation ‘Africa’? (I’m sure we all know where Rwanda is)

        Further, I too am having trouble seeing the joke. You would surely need a stubbornly over-literal interpretation of English for this to appear unusual.

        Would we all be chuckling if I posted a photo of a sign that read “Talk-time sold here”? Oh guys! They’re selling TIME ITSELF.

  14. I would perhaps argue that it’s not so much about a poor postal system or lack of bank accounts, but largely a “culture of non-payment”. I put that in quotes as it is a phrase generally used to describe the phenomenon. Look it up on the interwebs.

    I think that is the biggest challenge in service delivery in Africa. No matter what service is provided, no matter how heavily subsidised, the provider is unlikely to get paid, and discussion quickly turns into lengthy political battles that have nothing to do with solving the problem.

    It’s for this reason that a lot of African countries have prepaid electricity, water, phone, mobile phone, internet, sat, etc. The result is that payment systems are decades ahead of those in the US or EU. It’s by far the biggest adjustment we had to make after moving to Europe – taking a 25-year step back in banking.

    @Kieran – you are right, the headline is condescending, but do forgive them as they have no idea what modern payment systems look like ;-)

  15. I was in Kigali about a month ago, i didnt see this sign at all (and i LOOK at signs whereever i go)
    Rwanda have great plans which hopefully turns out god, amongst the plans are to be self-supplying in electricity from gas, of which they have a lot…
    … Such fine people, them Rwandanese…

  16. South African here! I have pre-paid meter in my townhouse. I purchase electricity online or at the petrol garage. You tell them how much you want and they take your cash and print you out a slip. It’s a 25 digit numeric code the loads the meter with x kWh.

    Got a slip from 2009 in my wallet that shows I purchased 182kWh for R200 ZAR.

  17. This prepaid system is very common in england if you are renting. You don’t need to sign a contract on your name and then chase your housemates for payment, you don’t need to commit for a certain period and you pay for what you get.

    It does suck if the credit for gas runs out in the middle of a shower in winter though

  18. Funny how you can pass, rightly so IMO, for one of the smartest person on the planet and still not get the simplest stuff. :) Happens to me all the time… the second part at least.

  19. Like Mattofdoom and Poufiasse, I was immediately struck by the use of Africa in place of an actual African country. C’mon, Mark, you should know better. Bob specified a city – would it have been so hard to say Rwanda?

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