‘Usain Bolt’ meters: Reform successes in the electricity sector can be quick, but only the failures get reported

bronze silver and bronze runner icons overlaid on electricity meter with blurred background
Mark Pyman
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by Mark Pyman & Festus Boamah

A new analysis of corruption and corruption reform in the electricity sectors of Ghana and Kenya suggests a new interpretation of how and why successes against corruption seem so elusive. This analysis makes sense of the apparent paradox that development projects can have positive outcomes whilst being beset with large-scale and ongoing corruption. To what extent is the reporting of the corruption overdone and with what consequence? To what extent are successful reforms unrecognised?

In both Ghana and Kenya, the electricity access rate has risen spectacularly, yet the electricity distributors in both countries have been – and still are – perceived by the public as systemically corrupt.

Electricity Access Rate chart for Kenya and Ghana 2000 compared to 2018

The public perception of unbridled corruption in the Kenyan energy sector reached a point so extreme in the 1990s that it prompted a donor embargo of the energy sector. New policies had to be urgently implemented to attract private sector participation to complement the state’s efforts. In response, Kenya changed from an incremental planning approach to ‘transformational’ energy planning in urban areas, via amending the Electricity Act and National Energy Policy to allow for private sector players and for open access to the National Grid.

While there were numerous corruption scandals during this transformation, it was this change that led to the elimination of power deficits and a much-improved electricity access for citizens. In rural areas, where access had been minimal, the new initiatives focused predominantly on subsidized rural electrification initiatives.

Meanwhile in Ghana, parastatals involved in power generation and supply have done creditably well to improve both electricity distribution and citizens’ access to electrical grids. Nonetheless, there have been multiple accusations and cases of corruption. The introduction of more pre-paid meters, for instance, coincided with tariff increases, which led to the perception that the new meters were either (a) deliberately calibrated to subtly extort exorbitant tariffs from customers, or (b) faulty and recording electricity consumption much faster than units consumed. This also happened to coincide with Usain Bolt’s sterling performance in the 2016 Olympics, which made him a household name in Ghana and, hence the invention of the satirical term ‘Usain-Bolt’ pre-paid meters by disgruntled customers.

On the positive side, there were numerous improvements in the way electricity programmes were rolled out, leading both to better access and reduced abuse through corruption. The cancellation of grid expansion contracts, legal prosecution of allegedly corrupt officials in Kenya, fierce public criticism of Ghanaian governments in the most controversial deal, etc. have also registered significant successes. Other successful corruption reforms included many ‘problem-solving’ measures, such as the frequent monitoring of electricity infrastructure, introduction of pre-paid metering systems, improved revenue collection/tariff payment mechanisms, establishment of legal frameworks to punish criminals involved in power thefts, improved oversight roles of civil society organizations, and stricter media scrutiny in the procurement of electricity infrastructure.

Performance reforms and specific anti-corruption measures in the electricity sectors of both Kenya and Ghana have generated an intricate co-mingling of partially successful reforms bundled with partial failures. Major improvements in the delivery of specific services have been obscured, however, by the failures of other anti-corruption initiatives seeking to address more deeply embedded, institutional corruption.

Anti-corruption progress in such complex and politically charged infrastructure developments is likely to comprise a co-mingling of successful and failed reforms. However, the nature of the media reporting and public discourse surrounding corruption, which focus exclusively on negative experiences and failed reforms, and the ongoing, seemingly insoluble, elite corruption mean that successful measures will not be explicitly recognised or given any attention.

Mark Pyman
Mark Pyman
Founder and editor, CurbingCorruption

Mark Pyman is a leading practitioner in tackling corruption, especially in relation to sector reform, security forces, conflict environments and the corporate sector. In 2018, Pyman founded CurbingCorruption, an anti-corruption organisation and website publicising detailed sector-by-sector reviews of reform approaches, worldwide reform experience, and sectoral research knowledge. The site publishes new sector reform experience, contributed by practitioners, academics, company executives and officials. Pyman has experience working in three of the toughest environments for corruption – as the Programme Director for Transparency International in tackling corruption in the military and Defence Ministries worldwide; in Afghanistan, as one of the three international Anti-Corruption Commissioners; and as the Chief Financial Officer for large international companies in endemically corrupt countries.

Festus Boamah is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Lecturer at the Chair of Social & Population Geography, University of Bayreuth, Germany. His current research projects focus on Self-organisation of Electricity, State Development Agenda and Socio-technical Practices in Ghana and Kenya. Boamah is currently part of a Mini-Grid Electrification project in remote locations of Namibia. His previous research focused on Biofuel Land Grabbing Africa. Boamah’s work has appeared in Geoforum, Development & Change, Energy Research & Social Science, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Journal of International Development, and more.

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