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ZESA “Juice Cards” a welcome move, but …


Frankly I can hardily remember the last thing ZESA did anything right; and I am referring to my entire lifelong memories here. Parastatals are bad in general but the state utility seems to have a propensity to always find its way to disasters even when all the others are enjoying modest success. The news that they are going to be introducing electricity recharge cards to ease the congestions that often occur at distribution points is welcome indeed but given the entity’s proclivities I would not hold my breath and expect a miracle where they actually do something right.

When I first saw the headline in the state press I was a little bit excited. Upon reading the entire article however, my hope was dampened. I had hoped that ZESA would be realising and selling juice cards to the public in much the same way that mobile subscribers like Econet, Telecel and Netone do. These mobile operators have liberated their selling system to allow anyone to join  the ecosystem, giving them access to an unparalleled network of vendors so efficient to the point that when one wants to recharge their phone they only need to go so far to get a “juice card” and it is very rare for juice cards to run out at certain selling points and even if they run out there is almost always another vendor nearby ready to step in. The last time I had money but could not buy airtime was way back in 2006.

ZESA’s proposed solution is to use electronic vending machines like the ones they use to sell airtime at Econet shops. The distribution of these tend to be rather limited to certain places which would probably need to meet certain requirements a fact that is confirmed by the press statement made by the group’s CEO Eng Chifamba who said that this program was going to be unveiled on 19 May by “ZETDC and other partners.” I had a vision of vendors shouting “Airtime yese! Econet, Telecel, Netone and ZESA” but somehow I have this feeling that these vendors are not going to make it onto the partners list. Even more ominous is the fact that Powertel is one of the partners. Powertel reported that they had invested a mere $200 000 into the project- a national wide project. This is rather miserly for a company that paid one of its advisers a salary of over $500 000.

There was a lot of noise when prepaid meters were introduced.The supposed magical powers of prepaid meters that would overturn our electrical deficit and force the Big Chefs and other defaulters to pay and thus ensure the end to blackouts – a magic that failed to materialize as the Big Chefs and defaulters either still have post paid meters or have found a way to beat the system. Powertel is the subsidiary that is in charge of revenue collection yet it is reported that the public utility (ZESA) is still owed $800 million in outstanding bills and losing more to those who have tampered with their meters. Why, even Powertel failed to bill its own internet customers properly and is still owed a lot of money by defaulters. I would question the wisdom of entrusting them with yet another project yet the Honourable Minister feels different. After a tour of Powertel he considers the revenue collection problem a thing of the past. I wonder what he saw in there to make such a bold prediction!

To reiterate,I think the sale of these power juice cards should be unbundled to the public instead of these mysterious partners. Entrusting another project into the hands of the ZESA group would be a costly mistake. Just a brief look at the players in the group: ZPC the company that cannot meet a shortfall of more than 1000 MW and whose generators are always failing for reasons even they don’t know, ZETDC with their hydrophobic grid that cannot stand a little rain and are quite adept at the art of load shedding ( a term which reminds me of how ancient merchant ships desperately threw off merchandise in a bid to stay afloat and avoid a shipwreck) and Powertel.

It was a good idea but I fear the ill-thought implementation is going to ruin it.

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12 thoughts on “ZESA “Juice Cards” a welcome move, but …

  1. The problem is that recharge cards for mobile phones are “online” the phone sends the code via ussd, so the mobile operator can ensure it is not reused. Our current metres are not online in any way so the code must be generated to be specific to your metre, so the selling system must be linked back to the zesa billing system so cards cant be preprinted.
    If zesa had opted for online power metres not only would they have better monitoring but also be able to retail juice cards which are not specific to that metre.
    Lastly with regard to retailers not making a big push in it, that is probably due to the commission zesa is offering, maybe it is as low as 2-3%, would you really want to invest time and money to setup network connections, vending machines etc just to earn a tiny commission. Zesa should make it more attractive to operators by raising the commission, at least till the roll out of vendors has been paid for and complete.

    1. Here is how they could make the “juice” cards saleable by airtime vendors: ZESA distributes preprinted cards of various denominations through the airtime vendors. A consumer buys the card and scratches it to reveal the recharge code then from his mobile dials a short code affixing his meter number and the scratch card number. The USSD session is handled by a ZESA back end system that separates the meter and scratch card numbers. If the scratch card is valid the ZESA system then generates the actual recharge number which is specific to the given meter number and gives it back to the consumer.
      On the ZESA backend, every scratch card number represents a unique record ID in the system with 3 important fields: amount, meter_number and recharge_number. Processing of each transaction involves reading this record. If the record doesn’t exist an error is given. If the meter_number and recharge_number fields are blank, they are populated with meter_number given in the USSD string and recharge_number generated by the system. If the meter_number and recharge_number are already populated AND the meter_number matches the one on the USSD string, the system simply gives backs the same recharge_number else it generates an error. This will allow the consumer to retrieve the recharge_number any number of times in case he loses the recharge number before entering it on the meter.
      This simple but effective system can be implemented using USSD, SMS, Web App, Mobile App, Interactive Voice Response, etc.

        1. My proposed solution solves the current problem with tens of thousands of meters that are already installed. The steps are quite simple to follow and can be printed on the back of the recharge card in 1 or 2 short lines. I imagine that it would take a minute or 2 at most to complete the process and topping up your energy meter is not something you do everyday.

          1. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that it’s convenient enough, however, true (technical) efficiency would be to have direct communication between the meters and ZESA, cutting out cellphones and thus cellular providers who are going to want to profit from the relationship.
            Your method would work as an interim solution though, considering the meters already deployed, as you say.

  2. Problem with this article is that it is too logical for ZESA to understand. Seriously. The technical issues about being online or not are solvable. They could work with TelOne to ensure that their codes are also online.

    1. To use one a secondary copper connection when one is already present isn’t necessary. All that’s needed is a PLC system between the meters and ZETDC, or whatever.

      1. Yu r complicating things! How could they even connect these meters when they cant make electricity (core business) available in the first place!

        1. Efficient systems are a seemingly complex thing, but they streamline things in a way that is advantageous in the long term.
          To say “they couldn’t do this, so they mustn’t bother trying to do that” even though it would make things much better is a mindset that stifles innovation and development. If they aren’t capable, people should be put in that can, because it is possible & is being done elsewhere. Zimbabweans aren’t fools, we are an intelligent, capable people.

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