Dodoma, the Powerless Capital of Tanzania

Last week’s business trip to Tanzania’s capital Dodoma has given me a very distinctive taste of Tanzania. I would never have guessed that anything else but Dar es Salaam is the country’s capital. Dar es Salaam has the industry, the workforce, the sea port, the embassies, the international airport, the companies and the traffic while Dodoma has an airport in the middle of a laid back town with up to 2 daily flights in and out. It has dozens of hotels around town and as soon as the new president will be elected in October the politicians will arrive like flocks of bird from Dar es Salaam to re-form the parliament.

Until then it will likely remain a sleepy town which has the role but not the crown of a capital. But it is not this kind of powerlessness I’m about to describe.

I was happy to arrive to the arid and cool weather in Dodoma after an 8-hour bus ride. The business hotel was a short walk away from FINCA in downtown Dodoma and some simple eateries were just around the corner. Upon arrival in the bank we received a warm welcome.

We proceeded to measure process steps and interview staff and clients for three days but there was one thing that fascinated me: IMG_20150729_163059664_HDR (768 x 1024)A huge battery pack in the backoffice that would provide electricity in case of power outage. I had heard a lot about power outages in Tanzania but had so far never experienced it.

Around 10:30 am the next day it happened: the power went off and on again. The branch was now running on battery power, which meant that the air conditioner was  no longer working. The battery was supposed to be good for 6 hours, right to the end of the business day. But the main power could come back any time anyhow. I was curious and became a frequent visitor to the battery charge indicator in the backoffice. IMG_20150730_120604344_HDRIMG_20150730_144214435_HDRIMG_20150730_151904181_HDR IMG_20150730_160205216_HDRThe air became more and more stale as the day progressed. I watched and charted the indicator as it slowly dropped from 100%. Everything felt normal until the power had dropped from 40% to 10% within 15 minutes. At 3:30 pm and after another 15 minutes the battery  had “hick-ups”. Every 3 minutes  the power would go out and come back again after 30 seconds. This occurred 10 times until everything got dark shortly before the branch was about to close at 4 pm. IMG_20150730_163409662_HDRA generator was brought in, a cable connected to the grid and the remaining clients were served before long. The take-away:  Not having a threshold level in place as to when to switch to plan B will introduce waiting time for everyone. I didn’t see any emergency handbooks like pilots have them.

When my colleagues and I got to the hotel that evening everything was dark. “Engineer is fixing the generator” the receptionist told us and soon we had power for the night. Happily we charged our power-hungry smartphones and the notebooks to be ready for the next day.

At the branch the power was back on, the a/c worked fine but the battery level had only reached 60%. Even though the system was supposed to switch between modes automatically it had not done so the previous evening and had required a lever to be pushed up manually. Unfortunately someone had forgotten to push it back down to allow the battery to charge as soon as Tanzania Electric Supply Company (TANESCO) would be back online. The take-away was: there is no fool-proof system and if an automatic system is installed it is better to equip people with some knowledge to operate it nevertheless.

Luckily we didn’t need battery power in the branch that Friday and the following night would hopefully rectify the issues. We were less lucky when we reached our hotel at dusk. Everything was dark again. Again the same line from the receptionist: “Engineer is fixing the generator”, only this time he didn’t manage to fix it and we were left to our dark rooms.

(we didn’t stay there but went out for pizza, but this fact is seriously messing with the narrative, so please forget it).

The hotel didn’t have candles or battery lamps for the guests and no apologies were offered. My Tanzanian colleagues were not amused about the level of service in this  “business” hotel and one of them even proceeded to use the “suggestion” box for our complaints. To us it looked like someone in the hotel had waited until it got dark and then started to try to fix the generator. My take-away was: Even if you own a generator there is an obligation to keep it in shape and plan maintenance ahead of time. And you need to embrace the reality of no power in spite of a generator and have a plan C ready.

The side of the business owner is one thing, but let’s look at the side of power provider TANESCO. Here it was suggested that the power outages were deliberate actions to better manage the available power by rotating it across various districts. Maybe there even is a schedule to this rotation but apparently nobody has a clue and power outages are treated almost like “force majeure”. My take-away: If the root cause was not a blown up transformer or stolen power lines then the people operating the off switch might be expected to communicate this to the public.

What was surprising however was the level of normality in spite of the lack of power. Cooking is done mostly with gas, coal or wood.  There is no public transport relying on electricity and street lights are practically non-existing so the lack of light was not noticeable. Only the exterior lights of homes and businesses were missing but as the moon was almost full we could find our way through the unlit streets to the Pizza and back. There the owner had a functioning generator and everything was performing as per normal for the 20 guests. My Take-away: service quality is possible in this environment.

The Shabiby bus to Dar es Salaam had already departed Dodoma when the  attendant announced that the air conditioning would not work on this trip and that we should leave the windows open (great opportunity to take pictures). An apology was served along with a soft drink but no refund was offered. My take-away: lack of ownership and lack of empowerment for all staff level is affecting service quality across the board. It’s this kind of powerlessness I wanted to talk about!

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