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FEATURE STORY June 18, 2019

Empowering Women to Reduce an Energy Utility’s Commercial Losses


In Comoros, participants of the Women's Leaders Mobilization Workshop during training on behavior change initiatives to improve the number of formal electricity connections.


Badrouzamane Mohamed


  • In Comoros, the World Bank and national utility SONELEC blended social science, gender analyses, and behavior change principles to take an innovative response to commercial losses.
  • More than 100 women were trained to raise awareness about the value of formal connections and paying bills.
  • Outstanding bills dropped by 79% in the first 100 days and SONELEC intends to continue working with women as role models and change agents

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.

With now a clearer picture of the Comorian context, the next step was to engage local actors and align around the same objectives. The Bank used the Rapid Results Approach (RRA) – a structured methodology mobilizing leaders and teams to achieve tangible results quickly. A multi-stakeholder team including grassroots women’s associations, civil society, private sector representatives, the government, customer support syndicates, and SONELEC senior and technical staff worked together to set two clear, measurable goals for the next 100 days: the collection of 25% of unpaid bills among low voltage and pre-paid meter clients in two sub-regions, and an increase from 12% to 60% in bill payments among low voltage disc meter clients in the main island of Grandes Comores. More than 100 women were trained to raise awareness about the value and need of formal connections and paying bills. Together, they reached more than 5,000 energy customers and consumers in Grandes Comoros, of whom 2,949 were women.

SONELEC complemented this approach with structural improvements, including opening a new office close to clients to reduce long travel times and queues for payment, opening a service center to maintain client records and strengthen trust with paying customers, sending text messages to customers to remind them about due bills and inform them about expected blackouts, and training 20 client-facing agents in customer service.

Fast and Visible Results

The face-to-face grassroots advocacy approach succeeded in building trust, improving accountability, and increasing the base of bill payers.

We have acquired willingness to pay the bill on time,” said Samra Bacar Kassim, President of National Network of Women Leaders for Peace. “I cannot make someone pay before I pay my bill. When we took stock of the 3 months of hard work, we found that the objectives were more than achieved. We are happy with the work done and the contributions of each one.”

Results from the first 100 days are clear: the first goal was exceeded with 32% of unpaid bills collected among targeted customers, and outstanding bills dropped by 79% from 3,834 to 777 customers.

During the RRA roll out, SONELEC was migrating to a new operating system, which made it difficult to calculate the exact increase of new bill payment. Nonetheless, there was an appreciable spike in new bill payments.

 “As the results displayed are more than satisfactory, we want to continue working with women as they are the main users of electricity,” said SONELEC General Manager Aboubacar Said Mdahoma. “In addition, they have a positive influence in households and villages. In a way, they are ambassadors of SONELEC in communities."

Women taking the lead as role models leveraged trusted community resources to become drivers of change. Developing better knowledge about societal norms helped both the client and the Bank to understand the inner dynamics of illegal connections and bill nonpayment, and to use these dynamics to promote change that helps all of Comoros.