Buy cash power via a “mobailo”

THERE is no more lining up and no more worries about time wastage and transport fares to spend. 

 Before, when power bills were ready, people would go to the kiosks of Electrogaz; the sole power utility in Rwanda, to pay their bills.

This was time waiting and frustrating sometimes.

Jeffrey Gasana, owner of SMS Media, a company that has specialized in mobile applications solutions and communications to cell phones known as “text messaging” has devised a system to automate the delivery of all the electricity services.

“It has reduced printing and distribution of paper invoice from Electrogaz,” Gasana says.

Electrogaz clients with mobile phones can send an SMS and everything is done.  To be precise, those in post-payment system just send an SMS and check their bills and get ready to go and pay.

Those in the pre-payment system can send SMS from anywhere to purchase units of electricity equal to or less than the amount of airtime in the phone.

This has changed life of many people in country. People can now check their bill status from anywhere in the country, or even while overseas.

Clients can also receive an alert about their bill or make an enquiry about the bill of any specific month. 

 Gasana’s company started in Rwanda in 2003 to provide state SMS-based information services.

The service has won the first ever Technology in Government in Africa (TIGA) award sponsored by the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Canadian government, in recognition of achievements that have led to changes at national, regional or provincial level. He scooped one of the twelve awards were awarded in Africa.

It offers technology and advertising solutions. It allows companies to interact with mobile phone subscribers throughout East and Central Africa.

“Three countries now have approached me.

They want to use the same service for their citizens,” Gasana says. Ivory Coast, Guinea and Zambia have already discussed a deal.

In Africa, the pre-paid systems work more efficiently than post-payment, the best way to serve African clients is to ask for the money up front.

Difficulties avoided
The culture of paying after getting services hinders most businesses in Africa. Africans are said to be bad debtors. 

“If a bill accumulates, most clients start thinking of ways to evade paying,” says Moses Kalisa, a businessman in Kigali.

Gasana’s innovation has helped to control some clients. Those with post-paid counters are alerted every time it gets close or after the end of the month.

At one time, Electrogaz management could not handle the irregularities. Clients used to cut and disconnect wires to use power illegally until the prepaid (cash power) meters were introduced.

Also at times, it would be a hassle for people to pay huge monthly bills because they could not control the utilization of power.

The SMS E-Bill allows ELECTROGAZ to send a bulk SMS informing their customers that their monthly bill is now available.

“The SMS E-Bill alert is an extension to the E-Billing service that gives Electrogaz clients a timely reminder that their E-Bill is ready to view,” Gasana adds.

A subscriber wishing to know his bill status will create a short message and send it to SMS Media’s 123.

The SMS specify the utility keyword, the customer account number reference and the bill period.

For example, one types<ELECROGAZ><123456789><02/07>.

“Our server checks if the customer account reference is valid, and then sends an SMS to subscribers’ cell phone within 5 seconds with bills status,” says Gasana.

The bills include the amount billed for water and electricity.
Gasana says he utilizes a standard SMPP connection to the SMS-C, as well as existing infrastructure, partly developed by SMS Media for interfacing with the GSM network platform.

Partnership with MTN
He says he is lucky to partner with the MTN network connectivity which covers 85 per cent of the territory.

Gasana’s system provides anyone with a cell phone and sufficient funds the possibility to purchase a stock of prepaid electricity and the opportunity to become a registered reseller of electricity to consumers.

He has signed contracts of sales of electricity with individuals or business organizations in possession of a mobile phone / point of sale terminal and sufficient funds to purchase prepaid electricity stock.

 Places like petrol stations, which are open 24 hours, have signed too.

He explains, “We register vendors to our administration and give them a PIN to allow them to enter in the system and protect their sales account.”

Once registered, the authorized vendors buy a stock of electricity upfront by depositing cash in the SMS Media bank account.

Then the cashier credits the vendors account via the web interface for the amount of the electricity stock paid for.

“The vendor may now sell prepaid electricity up to the amount paid and earn commission of up to 3.5 per cent for the sales,” he says.

A sale using cell phone is simply done by the consumer coming to the vendor and specifying the amount to be purchased.

“He provides his electricity meter number, mobile phone number (If the consumer has a cell phone) then the vendor sends the SMS to SMS Media short number “123”specifying his PIN code, the consumer meter number the amount to be purchased and consumer cell number if any,” Gasana says.

 The transaction is confirmed as complete by an SMS sent to the vendor’s mobile phone with the 20-digit PIN voucher.

 If the client has given his phone number, he will get also the same message. If not, the vendor writes the 20-digit PIN voucher on the receipt and hands to the client.

The other way is by sales using POS terminals. Many Supermarkets, petrol station, tele-centre and other dealer’s distribution centre are using this system.

“This helps to facilitate clients using bank credit card to buy electricity,” Gasana says adding that,

“The process is the same but it requires an internet (Wireless/ GPRS) connectivity to enable POS to be connected to SIMTEL switch (Rwandan Banks interconnection switch).”

This service utilizes a standard SMPP connection to the SMSC, as well as existing infrastructure, partly developed by SMS Media, for interfacing with the GSM network prepaid platform. On the side of Electrogaz, Gasana says,

“We use the Suprimae-Vend Graphical Thin-Client vending application which operates within a standard Internet web browser.” SMS Media server runs the e-Vend where clients do not have a database but SMS Media operates on-line to the main server of Electrogaz via existing wide area networks (WAN).

Jobs created
This easy access to services has a huge social and economic impact. It has created jobs and business opportunities, earning money for a lot of people.

A proprietor of an Electrogaz kiosk testifies to the benefits. He says there is no more pressure, no paper work and jiggling with a computer for 24 hours.

“I can move and rest than before,” he says.

This service has been stretched to villages.

The Nyamata tele-centre is already serving people with the same facility.

“I used to walk almost ten to twenty kilometres to buy electricity.

 But now I just call at the tele-centre and get electricity,” says one Mulalama, an old man far in the village. His son, who works in the Kigali, connected him with electricity and fixed a prepaid counter.

 This system has been welcomed world over.  While on his visit to Rwanda last week, S. Vijay Iyer, the World Bank Sector Manager, Energy Group, Sustainable Development Africa Region said he was impressed by the technological system.

  He said Rwanda has a very good thing; the cash power system, it helps in power management.

“When you know that you pay in advance, and get your power, it is very efficient for billing and collection.

 Whereas in the old system the management of Electrogaz would send someone to your house to read the meter and goes back to the office calculate and the bills come to you after a month for payments,” he said.

He was concerned that, “It almost takes you two months to pay for it. But now you are paying once to get the power.”

At the World Bank, he says, “It is these kinds of business processes that need to come in to make the utility more efficient.”

Charles Mulindwa is a Ugandan businessman rents a house in Kigali City.  He says he is amazed and wonders what Uganda is waiting for.

“I was surprised only to see a prepaid power meter but with phone system, it is beyond my pleasure.”

He says he always goes home very late. His house boy does not have a phone to remind him that they ran out of power but because of this new system, he just gets home and loads his phone with airtime and then buys power.

Solution into other areas
Early this year, Gasana was invited to attend an ICT workshop organized by Microsoft in Burkina Faso; another tiny African country, landlocked in West Africa.
His presentation attracted people’s attention.

“I am just surprised.

It can’t imagine such brains in Africa, we really need him also to come and introduce this here,” an official from Cameroon Faso told friends after Gasana’s presentation. 

If one buys an airtime scratch card, he uses it to buy power. Gasana, the Director of SMS Media, says they record the transaction and at the end of the month, “We go to MTN to collect the money equivalent to cards that were utilized by clients.”

MTN gets 4 per cent of every transaction. But Gasana says MTN decided to cut off the business.

 “They said they are not a bank and that it is not among their objectives.” SMS Media has approached the Regulatory Agency but there is nothing taking place now. “They told me to wait,” Gasana says. He says the Ministry of infrastructure promised they are still working on laws.

 They have also signed a contact with the Ministry of education to link the exam results database to SMS media. “Students will always get their results while seated at home.

 It is just by sending an SMS with your registration number and getting a feedback of all your results.”

The Traffic Police is likely to benefit from this product but negotiations are still underway.

 “If they upload all the driving licenses and details, we can link the database and a policeman can only send an SMS to prove whether an arrested driver owns a right permit.”

“The software is already here, we only add another code with options and that starts the business,” Gasana says adding, “we are here to serve Rwandans with the most easiest and useful services.”

Neighbouring countries are willing to grab the technology but Gasana has not yet finished serving the local people. “It is still new and we haven’t satisfied the market here.”

The rise of mobile phones in Africa has made people think about possible ways of using it to solve some common problems. Harnessing the mobile operators will help to deliver
Governments the world over are grappling with policies to make the most of these information technologies for their countries’ social and economic development.



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