The promise is that Blantyre Water Board (BWB) will install prepaid meters in the city and the surrounding areas for free.
The reality, however, is that some BWB employees are cashing in on the project by demanding money from customers, a probe by Weekend Nation has established.
Our investigation in the past two weeks in Blantyre indicates prevalence of a syndicate of fraudulent meter installers, who mostly target postpaid customers with high water bills and at risk of being disconnected.
The syndicate, which seems to have access to customer database, starts by threatening the customers that they will have their meters removed, after disconnection, if they fail to switch to the prepaid system.
Charging between K30 000 and K90 000, one of the installers justified the amount last Tuesday as ‘a service fee’ for speedy replacement of the postpaid system.
Townships the syndicate has targeted include Machinjiri, Ndirande, Chirimba, Mbayani and Bangwe.
Weekend Nation identified a house in Machinjiri’s Area 5 that needed a prepaid meter and we contacted one of the installers to provide us with a prepaid metre unit to be installed at the house.
The installer [name withheld] promised to replace and install the prepaid metre within 12 hours if we pay K30 000 directly to him.
On Tuesday, August 13, the installer went to the house and started the process of replacing the postpaid meter with a prepaid one.
A day later he notified us, through a phone call, that he had completed the data transfer from postpaid to prepaid billing system and was waiting for the money to install the prepaid meter.
From Tuesday to Thursday, he persistently sent WhatsApp messages, and made phone calls, demanding that the payment be made to him before he could install the prepaid unit.
When Weekend Nation team notified the installer that we had sourced K30 000 as per agreement, he arrived at the site at around 2pm, in a BWB vehicle, accompanied by another person.
The two men replaced the meter and pocketed the K30 000—no receipt was issued.
His colleague advised us that if anyone asked about the new meter, the answer should be “the old meter was leaking and we reported the fault to BWB and they replaced it with the new prepaid meter”.
Lyton Macheso, a Machinjiri (Area 5) resident, claimed he, too, has had his postpaid meter replaced with a prepaid one within eight hours after paying the installer K60 000.
“The officers in the syndicate have been moving from door-to-door, telling us to switch to prepaid metres,” Macheso claimed.
“The installers also approach people in public places such as drinking joints around Machinjiri Township to ask them if they are willing to switch to prepaid system,” he added.
Macheso indicated that he was willing to pay the bribe to have the prepaid system installed, because he can track water usage, load credit remotely and decrease the possibility of bill shock due to leakages or incorrect reading and disconnections.
Another Machinjiri resident, Moses Chikwatu, who for the same reasons paid the syndicate K105 000, said he wanted prepaid meters at his two houses in Area 1 and Khama.
“The meters were installed eight days after I paid them,” he told Weekend Nation.
Henry Kasawala from Ndirande Township claimed to have paid K50 000 and had his postpaid meter replaced within 18 hours.
A notice dated August 29 2018 (still available on BWB website) says, there will be no expense to the customer as the entire cost of installation of the prepaid meters is covered by the board.
“Replacement of the water meter will require a short interruption in water supply of approximately 30 minutes. The prepaid meters will be preloaded with 1m3 (1 000 ltrs) of water, whose cost will be recovered during purchase of water credit by the customer,” the statement reads, in part.
BWB spokesperson Evelyn Khonje, in an interview, expressed shock that some of the board’s employees are demanding payment for a service that is meant to be free.
She explained that her office has, so far, not received any report of the syndicate.
BWB started prepaid meter unit installation pilot phase in 2013 and rolled out the project in April 2017.
“We have never heard of anything like this. Postpaid meter replacement is for free,” Khonje said.
But Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito has expressed shock at the scam, saying the development will affect poor households who cannot afford to bribe the rogue BWB technicians to get the prepaid meter system.
He described BWB as a “rotten statutory body”, which has for years done little to stop corruption.
“If the management at BWB were to address the problem, all they could have done is to bring in enough metres so that there is no scramble. I have been looking for similar meters at my house, but up to now I still don’t have a prepaid meter,” Kapito said.