MORONI, June 18, 2019―Globally, the traditional response to electricity theft is to disconnect users, prosecute, and undertake vigorous meter audits. This helps to recover some losses but doesn’t address the root cause.
In Comoros, the World Bank’s ESMAP Africa Gender and Energy Program and national energy utility Société Nationale de l’Electricité des Comores (SONELEC) took a different approach, blending social science, gender analyses, and behavior change principles.
Comoros has a unique socio-political structure combining African Bantu matriarchal traditions and the Muslim religion, in which women hold influential community positions and are considered household heads. This presented a promising opportunity to further empower women and make them local change agents to help reduce electricity theft and increase bill payment.
Before the intervention, SONELEC’s revenues were affected by people not paying their bills, defaulting on their bills, and not establishing formal connections, to the point where the utility’s operation was becoming unsustainable. Three months later, more people were paying their bills, and there was less electricity theft.
A Methodical Approach
The World Bank first conducted a gender-sensitive poverty and social impact assessment - an approach assessing the impacts of policy reforms on different groups of the population. This found that female-headed households were actually more likely to use electricity without paying, owing to the matrilineal system where women own the house and energy contracts are registered in their names. However, the community often perceived women as more reliable and transparent bill payers.
The World Bank also collaborated with behavioral scientists to conduct a behavioral audit to better understand the motivations, social norms and structural issues leading to commercial losses. This identified a variety of obstacles to paying bills (including financial constraints, customers not receiving the invoice, a lack of electricity supply or a meter, and long queues to pay). This showed that individuals saw utility officials and their peers indulging in negative behaviors like non-payment and making illegal connections. Because that was the norm, others conformed to such behaviors.
It became clear that setting good examples in a visible way was vital. With support from the World Bank’s Collaborative Leadership for Development (CL4D), a gender-sensitive net mapping exercise was undertaken to analyze stakeholder influences in reducing energy theft and increasing payment of electricity bills. This revealed the local perception that men in positions of power in the energy sector were unqualified political appointees. Women were not well represented in the political arena and were not tainted by such associations, so were better suited to promoting transparency and civic values like the payment of bills and use of metered connections.