Rural Electrification: Power not yet for the people

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Nigeria mini-grids collapse under mega greed as the Rural Electrification Agency and its contractors screw up project at Onidundu

By Elijah Olusegun

At Onidundu, two things remind villagers they have a government, and neither of them evokes any fond memory: a fleabag which they call a maternity, and a glistening bed of sun-sensitive panels meant to supply electricity but never did.

The former was a legacy of the Obafemi Owode local government; the latter belonged to the Rural Electrification Agency, under the federal ministry of power, works and housing.

Bereft of even a jolt of electricity, the maternity still struggles, at least, to give the sick a jab or two in the arms. The solar mini-grid, however, had been on the blink 12 weeks after it was a year ago.

So Kashimawo Fadeyi couldn’t understand the species of humans in a government that failed to deliver the goods twice to a helpless community. “They know there is nothing we can do no matter how they hurt us,” he told the National Daily.

If this disappointment actually hurt Onidundu community, it did very badly.

Mrs Oloyede, the matron of the maternity, could tell what living off-grid meant, especially at the health centre. Heating, cold chain (for preserving blood, vaccines, drugs), ventilation, sterilisation—all medical processes needing electricity—were impossible. “See what I use to attend to patient at night,” she pointed to a slender, two-pronged headlight charging in the sun. The maternity itself was one big barn, boasting of two beds covered in rags, its floor dented in one million places. No bulbs. No fans.

The Onidundu maternity, according to her, recorded a monthly average of five deliveries. “And you know most of them happen in the midnight,” she said, using her fingers to wipe off trails of sweats bursting out of her forehead. It was 3 pm, sweltering. On the 23 of October.

Things usually would go bang some nights during delivery. And Oloyede’s penlight would surely be hopeless. The community then had to pool up their hurricane lanterns to floodlight the labour room, said Kashimawo.

The farmer, in his 70s, was one of the elders at Onidundu. His small frame was covered in skin singed with years of subsistence farming in the heart of the rolling plain of prairie that stretched 45 minutes’ ride all the way from Owode. He spoke in short, slow bursts, as if he were afraid to tell on some people.

But all around him were tell-tale signs of government failures. The mini-solar grid stuck out—like a sore thumb. Kashimawo’s crib, made of mud, and covered with rusty roofing sheets , had a smart meter without a card stuck to the wall . A silvery hollow pole, like 10 feet high, stood some feet away from the hut, carrying two cables, 5.5mm thick, that connected the meter.

There were 16 of such dumb meters and 20 of those poles at Onidundu—all of them wired to the solar mini-grid planted beside the maternity, at the entrance of the community; With a once-over, you would have the impression of a well electrified village with slender bands of cables crisscrossing above your head.

It turned out that the multi-million naira mini-grid expected to churn out 320 KW of solar power was another Heath Robinson contraption. A flop!

The Rural Electrification Agency awarded it in 2016, for N35.2 million. It was one of the nine solar mini-grids the Federal Government was tinkering with in off-grid communities across the nation. Apart from Onidundu’s, which had the highest expected output, and the only one in the southwest, there were others awarded same year in Delta (Ogbeinama), Rivers (Ahoada), Abia (Obinaichia), Plateau (Egogorebet), Taraba (Jibu), Adamawa (Michika and Madagali) , and Kaduna (Dodan Karji).

These were the federal government’s first attempt at exploring solar energy to electrify rural communities. It was also the first string of solar mini-grids it would handle alone. Development partners and local socio-preneurs have successfully constructed and delivered functional solar mini-grids across Nigeria.

A local clean energy development company, the Green Village Electricity (GVE), along with the EU and Germany, is blazing the trail in that terrain. The collaboration has delivered six solar mini-grids so far. Two were recently activated at Angwa Rina and Demshin in Shendam LGA of Plateau. Others are in Ogun, Niger, Plateau, Sokoto and Cross-River—all working at full blast. Over 12,000 rural dwellers are connected to these grids.

 

On the government side, it’s all hard-luck stories. None of the nine the REA initiated has been completed. The only success story the agency claims is the Sabon-Gari decentralized system in Kano. Rensource, an energy distribution company, constructed it, and is managing it as a private participant in the off-grid market. As always, most federal government projects, many believe, are non-starters, primed to fail. Like the Onidundu mini-grid was.
With the best of intentions and beady-eyed regulators in charge of rural electrification, the Onidundu project still got off on the wrong foot. A seat-of-the-pants contractor bid and won the contract in November 2016. He began the construction straight off—continuing till February 2017. In their thinkng, the community believed he probably sub-contracted it along the way to a journeyman the community could not identified.

If the contractor actually did, and the subcontractor was an engineer, he had to be one that was a brick short of a load as a professional. He was certified neither by the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) nor the National Electricity Management Services Agency (NEMSA). These are the two go-to agencies when it comes to technical evaluation of bidders for rural electrification project.

And the bidding, as the REA notes on its website, is not a process a quack should waltz through, ordinarily. The law guiding government award of contracts, the Public Procurement Act, in Section 5, considers eligible, only registered companies, with at least three years’ experience and payment of tax to bid for government contracts. Then, there is a long list of check-boxes to mark off: tax compliance, the Industrial Training Fund compliance, Pencom compliance, Corporate Affairs Commission registration, and the Bureau of Public Procurement contractor registration. Then there is the last hump to go: technical competence and experience which NEMSA evaluates and publishes in its directory of “Certified Corporate Companies to Undertake Electrical Installation Works in Nigeria”. These companies mostly bid for rural electrification contracts. A second directory there is for NEMSA’s “Certified Electrical Installation Contractors”.

After all this screening, the REA should have felt certain it would get value for its money by offering the most qualified and responsive bidders the contracts. Not yet.

Bukar and Bounty Nigeria Ltd, a faceless general merchant contractor, without the CAC registration, maneuvered the technical screening, slid through the REA tender board, and ended up winner of the Onidundu solar mini-grid construction project.

A search through the CAC database revealed Bukar and Bounty was a phantom. But in the regulators’ database, it showed up as an electrical engineering company whose big honcho was Sam Adewale Ibigbami, a NEMSA-certified electrical engineer. The company’s contact number and email address, dead, were listed along.

The company’s office, in NEMSA’s directory online, was at No. 3, Durban Street, Wuse 2, Abuja. The reporter travelled to Abuja October 26 to trace it, and speak with the contractor. The number led to a place other than an office. Or the company owners were just operating from their dining tables. The building marked 3 on Durban street was not an office:it was a security post of an estate off the street. “Maybe it’s Durban Close…you can check down the road,” one of the security guards advised, pointing down the quiet street. There was actually no Durban close—except the Durban Mall off the street at the other end. And Bukar and Bounty had not even a toe-hold in the plaza.

The contact line owner, who was now the unwilling face of the company, also did all he could to keep his mask on. A text message was sent to his phone that day, asking for an interview on solar grid construction, stating his office address as the meeting point. He never responded. On October 29, a WhatsApp message was sent again, since the line would not respond to voice calls. He replied this time, saying he didn’t receive the earlier message. When he knew he was chatting with a Lagos journalist that would like to interview him, the receiver begged off. “No. Wrong number, please. Thanks,” he said. Later, when he was told speaking to the National Daily on the Onidundu mini-grid was in his own interest, and that NEMSA had that number in its directory, he agreed to talk. But warned he was not Ibigbami.
“Who are you, then?
“Please stop this,” he fired back. It seemed he had a short fuse.
“I won’t entertain this any more.”
He slipped off again.

He’d always done that.

Kashimawo and other residents at Onidundu could not place the contractor, either. The small guy they knew was Koyejo. His voice had a tinge of hostility when the National Daily asked him about his relationship to Bukar and Bounty and the project. “Your company that sent you should go ask REA in Abuja,” he said on the phone. His involvement with the project was a long time ago—early in 2017. “He told us then they had moved him from that department,” said Kehinde Fadeyi, one of the youth in the village. Saliu appeared more clued-up than others on the troubled start of the project, and the mercurial character of its contractor.

Whatever Saliu and other villagers thought about the contractor, however, didn’t matter. It was just their opinion of him—at the grassroots level. Higher up the tree, at the government procurement level, Bukar and Bounty was a wheeler-dealer. In spite of all its apparent crookedness, it remained one of the go-go guys on the BPP contractor list.

The National Daily requested to confirm the company’s registration with COREN. The organisation has yet to respond. The southwestern coordinator of the REA, Owoyomi Ademola, directed the newspaper to write officially to the agency. All e-mails asking the headquarters how an unregistered company bid and won the agency’s contract were not responded to. It was only NEMSA, which certified Bukar and Bounty an electrical contractor, that responded. It had problem saying much, though. Yemi Oyegunle, the head of the Ogun zonal field inspectorate, didn’t even know where Onidundu was, not talk about the grid and its contractor.

At NEMSA’s Abuja headquarters, an engineer responded. Haruna N. Ibrahim explained how it’s not necessary that REA’s contractors they screen and put in their database must be electrical engineering companies (though the directory says they are certified electrical engineering contractors). Any jerk can apply. “But the company must present an electrical engineer whom we will train and certify,” he said. For Bukar and Bounty, all NEMSA cared about was the engineer presented—Ibigbami. It had no way of identifying the contractor except by the phone line and the useless email address.

The line user (let’s call him Engr Spark) later owned up, after some back and forth, that he worked for Bukar and Bounty. He refused to identify himself because according to him, he was not sure of whom he was talking to. And he didn’t respond when asked if his company was basically an electrical engineering company or an omniscient contractor.

But the company’s internet footprints and paper trail still reveal caches of information. Bukar and Bounty, presumably an electrical engineering company, with no office or a caterpillar, once bid for road construction projects in the ministry of works and housing in 2014. And it got three slots. A pre-qualification list signed by Director of Public Procurement S.A. Opaluwah listed Bukar and Bounty bagging Lot C15—the design and construction of Tewure-Ajinapa Road in Oyo; and Lot C16—the design and construction of the Ogrute Umuida in Enugu, and one other in Kogi . In 2016, it jostled with scores of others for the Universal Basic Education Commission category B contract—supply of library resources material. It made the cut, too. It also had a go at a residential building construction contract bid at the Nigeria Customs Service in 2016. It lost that,though.

So much of roaring trades for a shell company, four-man strong, as the PenCom compliance certificate list reveals. On that list, the company, unregistered though, had an RC No 931647; it paid N159, 520 as contributory pension to PenCom for its four workers.
When it comes to delivery, there’s little anybody can expect from a rolling stone of a contractor like Bukar and Bounty. Especially on a highly technical project the REA awarded to it.

Its lousy engineering of the Onidundu solar power grid was known even to the villagers. “The thing was initially low, very close to the ground,” said Kashimawo. “And some people came to condemn the project, and ordered the contractor to raise it higher to the level you can see now.” More complaints poured in, Kashimawo told the National Daily, when some “government people” came in November to inspect it.

On the grid were 30 photo-voltaic panels lined facing the sun, inclined at about angle 40 degrees. The villager said the monitoring group complained the panels were not enough. Worse, the entire structure was mounted on the bare ground, just a portion covered with a thin layer of cement. The switch room was locked up when the National Daily visited. So there was no way to know the number and calibre of the batteries and inverters for storing the electrical energy. Spark said the batteries were 195 amp.

But as it was, the grid, the villagers said, supplied power for just a week of test-running it. And after that, it went down. Spark contradicted this. “It worked for three to four months,” he said, adding that the villagers overloaded it because they didn’t know how to manage it. So it tripped off. “It was the REA that eventually came to shut it down, and locked up the place till the villagers will have orientation.” Kashimawo said it was on for as long as Spark said, but he denied the overloading. “What thing did we have here that could be too heavy for the solar [he meant the solar grid]? ”

If it was actually completed, said Haruna, the REA would invite NEMSA to inspect it, and issue a certificate. Bukar and Bounty was not issued any certificate of completion in those four months Spark claimed the grid was up. “Its none of NEMSA’s business to do that,” he said. ‘This is a renewable energy home system—not transformers installation and other things that NEMSA inspects.” Haruna didn’t respond immediately to a request to confirm this—the agency’s powers for renewable energy certification. On November 19, Tukur T. Aliyu, the general manager/head of department for Technical Standard &Inspection at NEMSA’s headquarters, Abuja, eventually responded by mail. “NEMSA has the mandate to carry out inspection, testing, and certification of renewable electricity project,” Aliyu wrote and signed on behalf of the managing director/CEO and chief electrical inspector of the federation.

For all the REA cares, the contract sum has been paid up. Spark never complained the agency owed Bukar and Bounty. But the project is still marked “on-going”on the agency’s website—since 2016.

The 320kw solar power grid was to serve just 26 households at Onidundu and its neighbour Eleyele, which had nine of the 26 smart meters.

Some experts in the renewable power generation industry the newspaper interviewed had their doubts about the viability of this project. “There’s no solar grid here,” said Tunji Romini, the CEO of Solar Centric Technology. His take on the project failure was based on the picture he saw, the details of the grid components presented, the contract amount, and the best practices in the industry.

The project might have failed—not only because of the butterfingers that slapped it together. Or because of the lust for what was in it for the company. The budget, too, contributed.

And the blame, for this, would be on the REA procurement department that awarded the contract. The Public Procurement Act (PPA) says there must be adequate budget provision before awarding a contract. Section 16, subsection 4.2 (b) of the PPA states: “Based only on procurement plans supported by prior budgetary appropriations; and no procurement proceedings shall be formalized until the procuring entity has ensured that funds are available to meet the obligations…”

But the REA budgeting and planning failed here, and its pattern of appropriation seemed a little tricky.

Delta, for instance, had its own mini-grid, to generate 40kw. Its cost stood at N60 million, compared to the N35.2 million for Onidundu’s 320kw grid. Taraba’s 160kw grid had N45 million. Abia’s 100kw got N45 million. The nine grids were to generate 743kw all together. And the total budget was N355 million. To construct and deliver nine solar mini-grids with this chicken feed is just a pipe dream, Romini said. He also added that to construct a 100kw system, you need a minimum of N100m.

The GVE-EU projects also confirm this—that solar mini-grids cannot stand on a shoestring budget. According to GVE’s managing director, Ifeanyi Orajaka, the two solar mini grids the company delivered, 50kW each, were constructed at the cost of €681,000. That was N243 million.

Which means the Onidundu 320kw solar grid could have guzzled up at least N300 million. That’s about 100 times the miserable N32 million voted for it.

The newspaper asked in an e-mail whether the REA did its due diligence in the financial planning for these projects. The agency did not respond.

That, however, is easy to tell: The REA threw N35 million at a solar mini-grid worth N300 million, and the host community continues to wallow in energy poverty. The end justifies the means.

More than 1 billion people like the Onidundu residents are floundering in darkness around the world. They, the International Energy Agency says, lack access to a stable supply of electricity. At least 100 million of them live in Nigeria, mostly off-grid, according to the REA.

To connect these masses of peasants and the lowest of the low to the national grid doesn’t make much economic sense, experts say. It could be quite pricey. For basic services from the grid extension, a consumer pays about N3,600 monthly. From the mini-grid, a basic service goes for about N3000, according to a document by the REA. Which is why a renewable alternative, like the solar mini-grid system, becomes a game-changer. The agency says it has identified 250 sites across Nigeria—where the mini-grid system is sustainable, and bankable, too. The market size is $8 billion, the largest of the three major markets in Africa.

The catch, however, is regulation. And the vibes coming from the regulators in rural electrification can’t be more disturbing. The REA and NEMSA have ballsed up the experiment with government-financed solar mini-grid projects at the very seminal stage of the market. They slackened the procurement process, let in Bukar & Bounty Ltd and other soldiers of fortunes to take on projects they had little idea how to execute.

It’s dark now at Onindudu and other off-grid communities thanks to REA slouching.

It may get darker when swarms of hawkish investors swoop in.

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