Afghan electric company struggles to make powerful customers pay

Mon Apr 15, 2013 5:13pm EDT
 
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By Katharine Houreld

KABUL (Reuters) - How do you collect a $200,000 electricity bill from an Afghan warlord? Try cutting him off from the grid. Then turn off your cell phone so he can't yell at you.

General Rashid Dostum - one of Afghanistan's most powerful militia leaders - found someone else to reconnect him within hours, said Mirwais Alami, the chief commercial officer at Afghanistan's national power company.

"This will take years to collect," Alami said wryly. "But I am determined. If he doesn't pay, his son will pay."

Although Dostum is still holding out, others grudgingly paid up after the utility started cutting their power connections. The company cut off 1,000 defaulters last year and collected $230 million, a 40 percent increase in the last three years.

The approach is beginning to pay dividends. Three years ago, the company lost more than half its power to theft. Last year, that had fallen to a third. The utility is now breaking even in the capital. It's a small victory in an industry beset by woes.

Afghanistan desperately needs to build an electricity network to generate jobs, develop its trillion-dollar mineral deposits - a process that will take decades - and win support for a government that has delivered few tangible benefits to its citizens.

There has been progress, but it is slow. The national electricity utility, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), was set up in 2008. The next year, donors constructed power lines from neighboring Uzbekistan, which supplies most of Afghanistan's electricity, to the capital of Kabul.

The imports helped boost Afghanistan's power to 1,100 megawatts last year. It's about a quarter of what is needed, but a definite improvement on the 291 MW the country had a decade ago.   Continued...

 
An Afghan vendor sits as he sells fruits in Kabul April 11, 2013. Afghanistan desperately needs to build an electricity network to generate jobs, develop its trillion-dollar mineral deposits - a process that will take decades - and win support for a government that has delivered few tangible benefits to its citizens. Picture taken April 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail