Small steps

In Malawi, everything is prepaid.  If there is such thing as “bill me later,” I don’t know about it.  This is probably because “loans” in Malawi are basically gifts.  (Imagine my surprise/envy when a friend explained that student loans are never paid back!)  So, for companies, the choice is to demand prepayment, or not get paid at all.  Obviously, most choose prepaid plans.

Upon arriving in Malawi, I got a SIM card for my cell phone and a few “free” minutes.  Now, I have to “top up” every week or so by buying “units,” the proxy for which are tiny cards with scratch-off numbers that closely resemble lottery tickets.  (Bonus: you always win.)  The units come in increments that are based on dollars, the largest (I think) being 1000 units (or $10).  The result – besides having adopted a marketing language created by Zain, my service provider – is that I’m much more conscious of the amount I spend on my cell phone.  Though I’m actually probably spending about half of what I spent in the US on a monthly basis, I’m only using the phone for a fraction of the time.  (Talk time is something like 30 cents a minute.)

Sure, you’re saying, but the US has prepaid phones, too.  That’s not really so different.  So here’s a more baffling example:  electricity is also prepaid.  I had been warned about this, as many an ex-pat has ran out of credit and sat in the dark, waiting for the electricity to come on and wondering why the neighbors have power.  My housemate, having been one of these expats in the dark, promised to take care of the electricity.  He’s out of town for the week, however, and on Tuesday my housekeeper informed me that we only had 70 units left.  He even showed me the meter box, complete with a digital countdown and flashing red light.  So on Wednesday, after getting as complete a set of instructions as possible (read: not very complete at all) from my housekeeper, I set off to buy some power credit.  (Makes it sound as if I were trapped in a video game.)

First, as instructed by the housekeeper, I went to the BP station in Area 18.  Apparently at some point you COULD buy credit there, but their machine is broken and has been for three months.  The person who assisted me spoke only limited English, so while I understood that I needed find an ESCOM office, I didn’t really understand where that might be.  I ventured on to the grocery store and bookstore, and found, to my delight, an ESCOM office in one of the strip malls in Old Town.  After I got to the front of the line, however, I was informed that I needed the meter number in order to buy credit.  I suppose if I had thought about it, I might have foreseen this, but since I get scratch-off cards for my cell phone with providing any personal information, I assumed the electricity worked the same way.  (The first rule for African living, by the way, is NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING.)

I went home, defeated.  I copied down the meter number, and then waited for an hour and half because by this time it was lunch, and Malawians take their lunch breaks very seriously.  After calling to identify the location of an ESCOM office closer to my house, I ventured out again.  This time, everything went much more smoothly.  A very nice young man working the prepaid desk helped me figure out how much credit I would need for a month (about $35 worth), took my money, and gave me a receipt with two different numbers on it.  He didn’t even get angry when I asked him to explain, in detail, what to do with the receipt.  (I had to enter the numbers into my meter to recharge my credit, though why two 16-digit numbers were necessary to accomplish this, I don’t know.)

All of this is to say, I successfully purchased power, and it only took me half a day and visits to three different ESCOM locations.  On the upside, it cost significantly less than my electricity bill in DC (which topped out at $265, after which we turned off the heat and spent the rest of the winter in multiple layers of clothing), and at least I wasn’t an expat sitting in the dark!  Small steps?


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3 Responses to “Small steps”

  1. Rachel Says:

    This story just made me value my electricity bill all the more. I’m so glad I don’t have to go to some office to prepay my bills.

  2. Skim Says:

    This is an awesome post, Amy. It’s so interesting! I’m extremely familiar with buying prepaid phone minutes (from Indonesia), but the whole thing with power really caught me off guard. Does your power-meter have a key-pad or something? I can’t even begin to imagine what it looks like.

  3. amyinmalawi Says:

    Indeed, the power meter has a keypad, as well as a sad face that appears when credit is running out. Next time I’ll post a photo.

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