MASERU – A planned electricity tariff increase will trigger price hikes across the board.
This will pile more pressure on already hard-pressed households and on companies that could respond by retrenching workers to contain costs, according to consumer rights defenders and business leaders.
The Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) said two weeks ago that it wants to increase charges by 14.2 percent for the year 2019/20.
The tariff change will see domestic consumers paying M1.5992 for a standard tariff of electricity up from M1.4009.
Factories and other industrial consumers will pay M0.0274 more than the M0.1936 standard tariff they pay now.
But Khoabane Khalemela, a representative of the Consumer Protection Association (CPA), said the tariff hike could put electricity beyond the reach of many families that are already struggling to cope with the high cost of living.
Khalemela questioned how, for example, civil servants were expected to afford the tariff increase in addition to the cost of other basic commodities that have also gone up when the government has failed to increase their salaries.
Khalemela’s claim that increasing tariffs could make electricity unaffordable to many families is backed by research which shows that similar hikes in the past have seen consumers, especially in rural areas, switching to other cheaper sources of energy.
He also expressed worry that the move could lead to job losses.
“Employees might lose their jobs due to the high price of electricity,’’ he said, adding that the most that consumers could possibly afford was a 0.2 percent increase in tariffs.
Khalemela said by opting for such a steep increase in electricity charges, the LEC was endangering jobs and in so doing was acting contrary to the objectives of the government’s National Strategic Development Plan that seeks creation of 10 000 new posts by next year.
The assistant secretary of the Lesotho Textile Export Association (LTEA), ’Malikhabiso Majara, said companies would struggle to absorb the new tariff increase.
Majara said many firms were already struggling to keep costs down after increasing the salaries of their workers last year following industrial action by workers towards the end of 2018.
The situation has been made worse by the weakening rand which automatically pushes up the cost of importing raw materials, machinery and spares because the Basotho loti is pegged to the South African currency, Majara said.
She added that increasing the cost of electricity would simply worsen what she described as a crisis facing many businesses.
“Since the firms are the biggest electricity consumers, this is going to (worsen) the prevailing crisis,’’ she said.
According to Majara, industry’s position was that there be a freeze on electricity tariff hikes until the operating environment for business improves and the economy is growing at more than two percent per annum.
The LEC buys electricity from Muela, EDM, ESKOM and SAPP Electricity Market.
According to the LEC representative at the stakeholders’ meeting earlier last month, Mothae Nonyane, the LEC does not receive subsidies from the government.
Nonyane said even without government support in the form of subsidies the LEC has been able to electrify 243 046 households or about 40 percent of total households in the country.
It has also been able to upgrade its systems, but he said the company still faces some critical challenges requiring it to mobilise resources and cash that can only be made possible by raising tariffs.
Some of the challenges the LEC faces include vandalism and theft of copper cabling, with the company, for example, using M637 000 in the 2017 to 2018 financial year to replace stolen cables.
Harsh weather conditions were also another concern as the company spends more money to ensure its workers are able to maintain its property and equipment in sometimes very difficult weather, said Nonyane, who made the comments as he announced the planned tariff hike on March 14.
But while it is understandable that the LEC charges market-related tariffs to remain viable and keep supplies running, this could be self-defeating where it concerns its bid to make electricity available to more households.
A study by Moeketsi Mpholo, who heads the Energy Research Centre at the National University of Lesotho (NUL), showed that families in rural areas tend to limit their use of electricity in tandem with tariff hikes.
The study was carried out in March 2017 in the three villages of Ha-Lejone in Leribe, Seboche in Butha-Buthe and Ha-Sekake in Qacha’s Nek found out that most consumers there relied on gas and firewood for cooking and mostly used electricity for lighting.
The study further revealed that 54 percent of the villagers using electricity said that should tariffs keep on rising they were going to cut down consumption to save money, while 27 percent said they were going to quit electricity altogether and opt for alternative sources of energy.
The authors stated that tariffs had since 2007 gone up by an average 23.6 percent which had also seen average usage of electricity by households declining by the year.
LRA’s modernisation project extended to October
MASERU – A four-year project to modernise the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA)’s system which was supposed to have ended in June has been extended to October. The Lesotho Tax Modernisation Project is designed to address weaknesses and target areas for improvement that are linked to the main causes of weak tax administration in Lesotho.
It focuses on improving efficiency and service delivery, increasing Value Added Tax (VAT) compliance, and broadening the tax base. It is also meant to support the LRA to consolidate and deepen reform by focusing on redesigning and upgrading business processes.
It is also meant to develop an enabling legal and institutional framework, introduce modern information and communication technology to increase tax compliance and efficiency in tax administration. It also promotes peer learning and experience sharing with similar national revenue authorities in the region.
The purpose is to strengthen the government’s capacity to raise domestic revenue and provide fiscal space for priority public expenditures including counterpart funding for ongoing operations. The LRA said the project is at 90 percent towards completion.
Speaking at a media briefing in Maseru on Tuesday, the Project Manager, Mokhethi Mabeea, said the project began in July 2018 and it was supposed to end in June this year. They have extended the time to October 2022 because implementation it took longer than expected.
The project, he said, was designed to enhance their services and modernise old systems. Mabeea said they were working on a different scope which includes E-taxation. The E-filing was developed for Value Added Tax (VAT) and Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) and deployed for piloting.
“We believe in October it will be up and running,” Mabeea said.
He said E-payment was also developed and under testing while E-registration is under testing development. Mabea said there is the Business Intelligence and Data Warehouse. He said the Business Intelligence was strategically developed and they are still in the process with the strategy which will assist in the implementation stage.
He said Operational Reports and Dashboards were developed and in use. He further said the Data Governance Framework was also completed and it is being operationalised. Mabea said an E-invoicing Solution was established late hence it will be completed around March 2023.
He said they also realised that the staff needed to be equipped with training as technology changes. They included amongst others the Block Chain Technology, special sectors in the financial sector and telecommunications sector, as well as business processes management.
Mabeea said in the Tax Administration Bill that was sent to parliament before it was dissolved two weeks ago. The Income Tax Bill was also sent to parliament while the VAT Amendment Bill has already been considered by both Houses.
Mabeea said that in the category of Small Business Tax Enhancement, they are seeking to treat small and medium entrepreneurs differently in terms of registration and filing of tax. The registration, filing and payment processes have been re-engineered. He said the configuration of the Core Tax Management System is in progress.
He said they are still calling upon all Basotho who are employed to file their returns. He said everyone paying tax should update their registration information. The Digital Service Manager, ’Makhothatso Khanare, spoke of an online rating tool which is still in progress.
She said they had introduced a tool management system in some of their offices to improve the quality of services they offer. She said they had so far achieved a 91 percent satisfaction level.
Khanere said however, they realised that since most of their services are conducted online, the level of satisfaction was not traceable. She said they expanded their rating tool digitally and a new product will be launched next month. She said this will allow all their clients who visit their offices and use the digital services raise their concerns and opinions.
We’ll ban import of agric products, says RFP
MASERU – THE Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) says it might consider banning the importation of agricultural products from South Africa to promote the domestic market when it wins power in October.
The party’s spokesman, Mokhethi Shelile, said this in an interview with thepost in reaction to the launch of a new agricultural produce market centre for the northern region last week.
Shelile, who was once the head of the Domestic Investment Promotion Division at the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC), told thepost that such a ban would help boost local farmers.
He said for that to be effective, there would be need to support local production as the first stage.
“This is the major challenge for the market sectors currently,’’ Shelile said.
He said since the farmers’ capacity is still low, only a few products such as potatoes are banned this season. Shelile said the production sector will need special attention to help the market centre.
Once they form government, he said they will immediately implement the idea to boost local farmers.
Shelile said an RFP government is going to establish markets where farmers will be able to sell the products even before they can start with the production so that they secure the financial means of increasing the production.
He said they realised that there are farmers who are still losing on their products because they cannot access markets.
“We want to give farmers a market even before they can start,’’ he said, adding that this will encourage farmers to increase their capacity and improve their standards.
The Lesotho National Farmers Union (LENAFU) programmes manager, Khotso Lepheane, said the setting up of the market centres will boost the farming industry in Lesotho.
“For the longest time this concept has been a good idea,” Lepheane said.
“Many potato farmers, amongst others, have benefited from this (Maseru) centre,” he said.
However, he said this concept introduction lacks a strong system which will encourage the retailers and the final consumers to buy from the market centre.
“This has caused a stagnation of products from reaching the consumers,” he said.
“This has discouraged many farmers from taking their products in the markets centre since it takes time for the products to be sold out and this might lead to damage of products.”
He said most of the farmers still consider the old method much safer. As much as the initiative is good, he said the concept cannot achieve its goal unless the market is channelled to market centres rather than seeing retailers and consumers importing what the country is producing.
“This is one of their biggest diversification mechanisms to commercial agriculture hence there are still some pricing challenges,” he said.
However, he said the cost is still bearable as compared to the role the centre plays. He said farmers still consider it as part of the change not a hiccup. Despite the challenges, he said they are still playing their role to educate farmers on how to improve their capacity and quality.
He said they also teach farmers on how the commercial sector works so that the pricing issues cannot tarnish the good initiative. He said they are also working with different departments to smoothen the supply chain.
Lepheane said they want to see more market centres being established in all the regions.
The Manager of Maluti Fresh Produce, Nthako Supi, said the market centre has the potential to encourage high productivity and boost the economy of the country. He said for the past 10 years, they were able to gather about 240 farmers who were growing crops, vegetables and fruits.
He said this year they were able to gather about 87 potato farmers and over 6 200 bags were sold out. He said they have a transparent system which allows the farmers to know and see how their products were sold and how they work. He said the centre is only entitled to the commission of the money they generated when the product is sold.
“The product belongs to the farmers until it has been sold out,’’ he said.
As much as they tried to improve their system for the sustainability of the centre, he said they still have some challenges which need to be addressed for its sustainability. He said the consistency and low productivity from the farmers’ side as one of the major challenges.
The setback, he said, is that the place where the market side is located is far from the traffic and shops hence the number of customers is still low. Supi said the major challenge is the tight competition they had with the South African producers.
He said most of the retailers and final consumers still consider buying the products in South Africa rather than supporting the market centre.
“We currently have more potatoes in our storage which are not performing so well in the market due to tight competition,’’ he said.
He said this is triggered by inconsistency of local farmers in terms of quality and quantity.
“Consumers buy what attracts their eyes, so if today consumers get a good quality product and tomorrow they get something different they lose hope in us,’’ he said.
“For the market centre to continue functioning, the market has to be regulated.”
The Public Relation Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lereko Masupha, said Lesotho still needs to import basic products from South Africa because local farmers are not able to meet demand.
“However, our consumption is so high hence we still need products from other countries,” he said.
Blow for Akani
MASERU – A company fighting for a contract to manage Lesotho’s biggest pension fund paid bribes to win a similar contract in South Africa. Akani Retirement Fund Administrators, a South African company, has been fighting for the contract to manage Lesotho’s Public Officers’ Defined Contribution Pension Fund (PODPCF) since 2020.
The basis of its bid for the PODCPF contract was that it had a sterling track record in South Africa where it once managed the Chemical Industries National Provident Fund (CINPF) which has 21 000 members and is worth M7 billion.
The PODCPF has 35 000 members who are government employees and, like the CINPF, is worth M7 billion. But in a massive blow to its reputation, South Africa’s High Court last week ruled that Akani bribed the trustees of CINPF to topple a rival company and get the contract.
The victim of its corruption, the court ruled, was NBC Holdings, a major shareholder in NBC Lesotho Insurance Company Limited with which Akani is fighting for the PODCPF contract in Lesotho. NBC had been the CINPF’s administrators for three decades when Akani instigated its termination and took over the contract.
It is those allegations of corruption that were at the centre of the long-drawn battle between the companies. The court ruled that in 2019 Akani paid three CINPF trustees to terminate NBC’s contract. It found that the trustees faked the deaths of three relatives to receive the bribes in the form of insurance claims paid through
Neighbour Funeral Scheme, a company with strong links to Akani. The payments were made to the trustees – Bonginhlanhla Dangazele, Reginald Sema and Ayanda Sithole – four months after NBC’s termination and a week after Akani’s appointment.
Dangazele was the CINPF’s principal while Sema was deputised by Sithole as the chairperson of the board of trustees. Akani and the three had vehemently insisted that the payments which happened on the same day in 2019 were insurance claims for relatives who had died around the same time.
The three took up the insurance policies with the Neighbour Funeral Scheme around the time they were aggressively pushing out the NBC from the CINPF contract. Their relatives too died around the same time and their insurance pay claims were paid on the same day.
The court ruled that it was a “remarkable coincidence” that the three had taken out the policies at the same time, their relatives had died around the same time and Neighbour Funeral Services paid their claims within four minutes of each other.
Dangazele received M40 000 while Sema and Sithole got M25 000 each. Justice Adams said there is no explanation why, out of funeral policy vendors, the three trustees signed up for policies with Neighbour Funeral Scheme on the same day, their relatives died around the same week and their claims were paid minutes apart.
The judge said based on “irrefutable inferential reasoning, the true purpose of the payments to Dangazele, Sema and Sithole was a bribe”.
“The explanation for the receipt of substantial payments all on the same day, all from one funeral scheme vendor, which happens to be a company related to Akani, one week after the appointment of Akani, in which decision they were directly involved, implies a series of truly remarkable and unlikely coincidences,” the judge said.
He ruled that the termination of NBC’s contract should be reversed because it had been tainted by corruption and fraud. The court also ordered the CINPF to remove Dangazele, Sithole and Sema as trustees. The judgement in South Africa has serious implications in Lesotho because Akani and NBC are battling for the contract to manage the PODCPF.
The fight started after the PODCPF renewed the NBC’s contract as an administrator following a two-horse race with Akani. Four of the PODCPF’s trustees, who preferred Akani disputed the decision, wrote to Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, who was finance minister at that time, asking him to intervene to reverse NBC’s appointment.
They accused the board, of which they were members, of ignoring complaints against NBC in Lesotho and South Africa. They pointed out that NBC’s contract with CINPF has been terminated for “non-performance issues”.
They were referring to the same termination that the South African court has now ordered be set aside after finding that it was instigated by Akani through bribes to CINPF trustees.
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