T he events at Namwili area, located on a stretch along the M1 in Dowa District, proves that it only takes one act of vandalism and another of indifference from the public to plunge an entire community into dungeons of darkness.
Members of the community woke up to find an Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) distribution transformer, located at Kapida Village close to Namwili Primary School, dismantled and vandalised, wire-bare. The entire area was left without power supply.
The area’s senior citizen, Benjamin Tenthani recounted how the act of vandalism hit hard members of the community, especially 200 dairy farmers.
He said: “The farmers were in a desperate situation, unable to store their milk in refrigerators. Instead of throwing the milk away, we opted to sell the milk to readily available buyers at a give-away price of K200 per litre, instead of the usual K250 per litre. If we are able to store the milk, we could have waited for the right prices.”
Warning signs that the transformer was under threat were there. A few days before the actual ransacking of the transformer, the vandals stole cables connected to the transformer.
Tenthani, who is from the sub-Traditional Authority Mtsinje royal family, admitted that members of the community in the area were slow to react to the incident.
“We should have done better to protect the transformer but it is located at an isolated place where monitoring it is difficult. We wish the transformer were located closer to the gasoline filling station. Once it is re-installed, we shall deploy security guards to watch over it,” Tenthani said.
“I doubt if that heartless person who vandalised the transformer is from this area. It should be someone well-versed in electrical installation matters.”
What happened in this Traditional Authority Mponela area is just a tip of the iceberg in as far as vandalism is concerned. It is a cancer that has been eating the fabric of the country’s energy sector assets, thereby starving more people of access to electricity, contributing to inefficiencies and endangering lives.
There are simply no winners in this game of vandalism, which hit the hardest Escom—a State-owned limited liability company established under the Companies Act of 1984 to procure, transmit and distribute electricity.
Every month, Escom—which is among the biggest players in the domestic energy market—registers cases of vandalism, theft, meter tampering, illegal connections and power tapping.
The theft and vandalism hits the hardest components such as copper cables, earth mats, poles and tower members, which the vandals sell to unscrupulous manufacturers of metal products such as hoes, spoons and cooking pots.
For example, between January and July this year, Escom registered 35 of such cases in the Southern Region, which cost the company assets worth over K25 million.
During that period, police officers arrested seven people in connection with the offences.
One perpetrator of the vice is serving a two-year jail term while the other cases are pending in court.
At least 21 of the Southern Region cases occurred in Blantyre, which is the epicentre of such criminal acts probably due to its proximity to the illegal markets, among other factors.
Likewise, during the same period, Escom registered 19 cases in the Northern Region and from June 2020 to June this year, the corporation lost property worth over K5.7 million to such vices in the region.
The public can perhaps relate to a typical case of meter tampering whose video clip went viral on social media last month.
In that incident, three men anchored a ladder and another climbed all the way to an electricity meter box perched on an electricity pole to ‘fix’ a fault at Magomero Trading Centre in Dedza District.
The four men—a maize mill owner and electricians—left the electricity pole unscathed despite the inherent danger of electrocution, but the long arm of the law caught up with them.
The men are answering charges of damaging Escom property contrary to the Electricity Act whose violation, among other penalties, attracts a 10-year maximum custodial sentence.
If the Dedza incident provided a fodder for morbid fascination on social media, what followed a few days later in a separate event in Blantyre was scary.
Chrispin Kadzibwa from Area 8 in Machinjiri Township is suspected of embarking on a dangerous mission to vandalise electricity tower members in Area 1, where he suffered serious burns on June 30 2021.
Similar incidents happened earlier this year in Kasungu District leading to the arrest of three suspects involved in vandalising copper cables, earth mats and six transformers each estimated to cost K15 million.
“We recovered at their houses the following Escom materials, namely transformer rugs, PG clamps, insulators, armour, wire, bolts, nuts, parts of surge diverter, transformer winding wire, aluminium pots which were made from aluminium wires,” a police source in Kasungu said.
Some causes of the vices
Cases of vandalism are thriving because there is a lot of demand for copper on local and international black markets.
Another school of thought says perpetrators of vandalism are sometimes those who do not have the economic capacity to apply for access to electricity; hence, do not see the need to protect electricity property.
It is clear that Escom assets such as transformers are located closer to locations to better serve the public; hence, providing security for these assets ought to be a collective responsibility.
Apart from a fully-fledged security department, which Escom has to monitor and protect the company’s property, the corporation also embarks on annual anti-vandalism campaigns.
On May 24 2021 at Chirimba Primary School Ground in Blantyre, Escom rolled out a campaign for the Southern Region to sensitise members of the public to the dangers of vandalism.
The next phase of the campaign covering the Eastern Region will follow.
Additionally, Escom encourages the public to provide tip-offs for cases of vandalism in exchange for cash rewards.
Such an initiative paid dividends on February 3 2021 when members of the community for Khwisa in Balaka District foiled an attempted theft of a transformer by alerting the police, who eventually arrested suspects, including an Escom faults operator, Madalitso Gama.
Eventually, on May 21 2021, Balaka First Grade Magistrates Court sentenced Gama and his accomplice Dickson Chipoya to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment each for the crime.
Balaka Police Station spokesperson Felix Misomali believes people can learn from Khwisa residents.
“We are asking communities to always verify, through authorities near them, true identities of Escom officials [seen] tampering with any Escom property,” Misomali said.
It is clear that such stiff punishment for those involved in theft and vandalism of Escom property can serve as a deterrent.
There is also a need for institutions such as Malawi Revenue Authority and the Department of Immigration and Citizen Services to help Escom fight vandalism by ensuring that exporters of scrap metals are not conduits for sneaking pieces of metals stolen from the corporation’s assets.
Dealing with the actual market for such stolen materials can be a long-term measure to curb vandalism.
Cost of vandalism
Vandalism and theft of Escom property lead to loss of income for companies and small-scale enterprises and contributes to loss of property through fire accidents, injuries and deaths.
Furthermore, Escom constructs most of its infrastructure using imported materials, which are expensive to replace when stolen.
A transformer can cost between K2 million to K15 million or even more.
It is estimated that Escom lost assets worth K1 billion between May 2020 and May 2021, according to Escom district engineer (Limbe), Eston Macheche.
“Protecting the property of Escom is our collective responsibility because if such property is vandalised, entire communities are affected,” he said on the sidelines of the anti-vandalism campaign launch at Chirimba.
Vandalism has been undermining Escom’s efforts to increase the number of people connected to the national grid.
At least 12 percent of the country’s population is connected to the national grid.
Escom’s target is to push the percentage to 30 by the year 2030 to complement the government’s development Agenda 2063. There is a need for the public and security agencies to join hands in fighting vandalism and theft of Escom property to consolidate the gains, which the energy sector has made.