We were not duped on Electricity Tariffs. We simply didn’t tell the story.

This new information environment in which we live, it’s so vastly different from what it was a few decades ago. It’s noisier; it’s more confusing; there are a lot of sources of information that are not trustworthy. Many talk shows and many blogs are in that category, just the sheer noise of all the media messages that are coming at us. I think what we need journalists to do is help us find some clarity amidst that noise and confusion, and not add to it. So I think there’s some real urgency around this particular issue in journalism. Thomas E Patterson. 

Electricity tariffs have always been a touchy subject. Often, Umeme, the power distributor taking most of the heat. Sometimes, rightly so considering it is at the tail end of the electricity value chain and closer to the consumer. However, The regulator, Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), is one that sets the tariff. Mid this month, ERA made the announcement where the tariff was reduced – that is the phrase being used – by 0.8percent to Shs520.4. In their statement, however, there was also an increment for the first 15 units of electricity; from Shs100 to Shs150, an increment of 50percent. Yet again, ERA pointed out that the government would be spending Shs59.5bn on thermal plants – without specifically indicating where this money come from. 

So which story did we pick on? It was one where ERA apparently reduced the tariff by 0.8percent but then we sort of sidestepped the 50percent increment on the first 15 units. Yes, the reduction may have been historic but it was insignificant and the impact on the consumer is minimal. The consumer of electricity is one we write for and is one we have to be informing. Did we do a good job in letting them know whether they would be paying less? Perhaps not. Yes we had all these deadlines to beat and file stories for our newsrooms but this matter needed to have explored further to actually point out to the consumer that this reduction was – on paper – a reduction but in broader terms an increment or no change at all. 

I’d done my own calculation, but here is one done by a journalist on Facebook group wall:

“Under the old tariffs, you were paying Shs 100 for the first 15.5 units (Shs 1,550) and 84.5 units X 524.5 = 44,320. Your total would be Shs 45,870. Under the new tariffs, you are going to pay Shs 150 for the first 15 units = 2,250, and Shs 520.6 X 85 units = Shs 46,501. Ideally, the total for the 85 units should have gone down by Shs 69 but because the cost of the first 15 units went up by a total of Shs 700, the total bill will go up by Shs 631”

The Daily Monitor covered this story, but Nelson Wesonga did not write the story yet his insight on the sector – as always – I admire. Monitor did allow him to do some commentary right next to the story. 

Noteworthy, too, is that ERA has increased the charge for each of the first 15 units that one uses from Shs100 to Shs150! That means a poor man – and I believe there are “a few others” like me – who use averagely 20 units in a month, will save only Shs28 per month.  

Thomas Patterson, author of a new book, Informing the News – Need for Knowledge Based Journalism in a Nieman Labs interview says: 

I think journalists need to have a better understanding of their audience. Traditionally, they’ve had a pretty good understanding of the news process and the gathering of news — the production of news and the dissemination of news — but not a real, deep understanding of their audience: how people learn, what it is about news stories that leave an impact, and what’s the cumulative effect of news coverage.

Pic from http://www.btcctb.org/en/casestudy/electricity-fight-poverty-rural-uganda

In the same interview, he adds: 

Another piece of it, of course, is numerical literacy. Many journalism programs don’t require their students to understand numbers, statistics, government reports, and the like. I find it hard to think how a reporter can operate in this increasingly complex, number-driven world without the ability, not to do the numbers or collect the data, but once looking at it to understand it and be able to interpret it in a way that enables the audience to see its significance. 

The debate on the other hand has been to report the story because we finally have a reduction in Tariffs in over a decade. So what if it is the first reduction? Is the “small” consumer the only person who reads the news – if they do at all? How many units of electricity does a Ugandan household consume on average? Would this reduction have helped them? Did the industrial consumer get a much needed reduction so that costs of production can reduce? In other words, so what if they have “reduced” the tariff? Where is the money to pay the thermal plants going to come from, a subsidy or it is part of the tariff? Did Umeme get what it wanted? 

Take note that ERA said electricity losses had dropped from 23percent to 20percent at the end of 2012. What does this exactly mean? If the losses have reduced by this margin, why isn’t it being reflected in the tariff?  Are we perhaps too fixated on Umeme and not doing enough to put ERA to task? 

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