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Dark lies, fraud and politics

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Generators were probably the first noise that babies born this year have been subjected to.

Most health facilities have been using them as alternative power supply due to the blackouts that have rocked the country, especially in the last six months. This has been the most risky part since most public health facilities have not managed to sustain the use of generators due to inadequate funding.

Even the Malawi Health Equity Network (Mehn) attested to the fact that the blackouts have killed people in the country’s health facilities.

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“Intensive care units can’t operate without power. Women are giving birth in candle light or using light of cell phones. Maternal and neonatal services are losing quality as electricity problems are affecting premature babies who seriously need electricity and oxygen,” said Mehn Executive Director, George Jobe when his organisation presented a petition to Escom.

The country’s Health Minister Atupele Muluzi has, all the while, been living in denial, arguing that no death has been recorded in public hospitals because of the power outages.

The public had high hopes that things would improve when Escom unbundled, leading to the formation of Electricity Generation Company (Egenco) early this year.

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Egenco began its operations on January 1, 2017. Since then, it took charge of all power generation stations. The company has been responsible for power generation while Escom’s task has been to supply that power to consumers.

But contrary to what the public expected, 2017 has turned out to be a year when the worst power outages were experienced in Malawi. It appears Egenco inherited wholesale fraud, lies, politics and all other problems Escom had.

Times publications have been exposing scandals related to the power company throughout the year. In May 2018, Malawi News reported that Escom was caught up in a fight with Independent Power Producers (IPPs) over bidding and tendering process for the award of contracts to supply 70 megawatts of solar power.

A Spanish company, Alten (2010) Renewable energy lodged a complaint.

A letter dated May 11, 2017 says Escom offered Lot 1 of Nanjoka (20 MW) and Lot 4 Golomoti (17.5 MW) to JCM Maltswani Solar Corporation Limited at 8.9422 US Cents and 8.9570 US Cents respectively.

“The tariff offered by the preferred bidder for Lots 1 and 4- JCM Maltswani limited is significantly higher than the one offered by Alten (which was at 8.650 and 8.750 in lots one and four respectively), which means that there will be huge cost implications for Escom and consumers over the period of the Power Purchase Agreement,” reads part of the letter, signed by Javier Buceta, SADC Regional Director, an authorized signatory of Alten Energy

In July, Malawi News also exposed that Escom is going to pay K8.3 billion to suppliers for a contract which was entered into behind management’s back.

The story exposed that, out of the merchandise worth K8.3 billion, the users (departments) only needed K3.2 billion worth of items and equipment, rendering K5.1 billion worth of items unwanted or useless.

The organisation was caught up in this mess because its director of procurement, Fanuel Nkhono, allegedly entered into a contract with more than 18 companies without the knowledge of the then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Kandulu.

The then Escom Public Relations Manager, Kitty Chingota said Escom had commenced negotiations with the suppliers and was hopeful that the organisation would eventually pay reasonable prices.

With such scandals and other politics happening behind the scenes, the power blackouts worsened, particularly in the month of September.

In August, Malawi News published a story that sort of predicted that the country’s blackouts will not end unless Egenco find long term solutions, including rehabilitation of the water reservoir ponds which have been silted for many years.

The story exposed that Egenco inherited Nkula, Tedzani and Kapichira power stations with heavily silted water reservoir ponds (about 2,600,000 big) which are almost equal to ground level.

If the ponds were functioning, Egenco would be using stored water for power generation (especially during lean periods) and there would not be unnecessary electricity blackouts.

Egenco had announced weeks earlier about a reduced electricity generation capacity due to reduced water flows in the Shire River, due to low water levels in Lake Malawi.

But Egenco Senior Public Relations Officer, Moses Gwaza downplayed all the fears and concerns. He told the public not to panic as the organisation was trying everything possible to remove the silt from the pond reservoirs.

“So far we have been able to remove about 72,380 metric tons of silt from the pond at Nkula as at end July 2017. A Dredger was donated by Japanese government which we are currently using to dredge at Nkula,” he said.

In early October, The Daily Times published a story exposing that Malawians were experiencing blackouts due to Escom’s carelessness. The story revealed that Escom awarded a $74 million contract to Agrekko (a South African company) to supply 78 megawatts diesel generators which the country needed to use in October, when the country’s hydro power plants are at their worst.

Escom’s then Chief Executive Officer, Everyn Mwapasa sought clarification on the matter from the Office of the Director of Public Procurement on whether this was the right decision or not.

At this point, the public was already angry with the electricity black outs. They even vented their through social media platforms, especially Facebook and WhatsApp.

The Daily Times later published a story, predicting that that the public would have to pay for the generators, to be leased through tariffs, considering the circumstances surrounding the lease of generators.

Power outages became worse as the public could go 24 to 36 hours without electricity. The business sector, especially small scale business people who could not afford to sustain a generator, suffered a lot.

On October 25, 2017, President Peter Mutharika stormed an Escom – Egenco meeting in Blantyre. But the power outages continued and even worsened. Social commentators labelled the President’s visit a public relations stunt.

On November 9, 2017, Escom CEO, Everyn Mwapasa was transferred to Air Cargo after only working for eight months at the power utility corporation. She was replaced by Alexion Chiwaya, who was a former employee of Escom.

The Daily Times later reported that there was a new scam at Escom as the new CEO’s (Chiwaya) management re-awarded a contract to supply the generators despite the fact that the ODPP cancelled it during Mwapasa’s tenure of office. The CEO did this without the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority’s (MERA) endorsement on the Power Purchase Agreement.

On November 25, 2017, Malawi News reported that Mera approved a 25 percent electricity tariff hike, finally vindicating our stories that the public will end up paying for all the mismanagement, lies, fraud, poor decision making and politics happening at Escom.

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