Missing Leadership: The trouble with the Kenya Power and Lighting Company board

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“The trouble with Nigeria is simply a failure of leadership…The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” – Chinua Achebe

Negative news headlines depicting the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) board as holding too many meetings, taking over management roles and or fears it could be strangling the important but troubled utility are widespread.

But are they true or not? That is the question, we will attempt to answer.

It’s no secret, therefore, that KPLC Chairperson Ms. Vivienne Yeda, a lawyer and management expert finds herself in undesirable and sustained adverse publicity. She has been tossed around from hostile parliamentary committees to not so pleasant sessions with Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC).

That KPLC board members are under investigation is no good news either.

Other KPLC directors Eng. Abdulrazaq Ali, Ms Caroline Kittony-Waiyaki, Eng. Elizabeth Rogo, Mr Kairo Thuo, Eng. Isaac Kiva and Mr. Humphrey Muhu are equally having potentially their worst times of their lives.

They are under scrutiny. In the court of the public opinion, they could as well be already condemned. In reality, they have a good chance of redeeming themselves. But they must move fast.

But how did it begin? The new board members recently forced their CEO Mr Benard Ngugi, himself a long-serving head of procurement, to resign on alleged grounds of non-accountability in various major tenders.

Sections of staff and the union officials sided with Mr Ngugi against the board. The union even threatened a strike before Energy Secretary Charles Keter intervened and had it called off on Tuesday.

The mainstream media has been running nearly a one-sided story, thanks to weak corporate affairs leadership at KPLC. The board has been on the receiving end. The lethal social media has taken the wait-and-see approach as silent battles at KPLC rise a notch higher.

Incidentally, many ordinary Kenyans would not even know if the likes of Alfred Sambu, Eliazar Ochola or Kenneth Marende were ever chairpersons at KPLC. They kept a low profile. They focused on policies at the boardroom. They allowed their CEOs to shine.

It is different for Ms Yeda. A non-executive chairperson who receives more publicity than the former CEO Mr Ngugi and the acting CEO Eng Rosemary Oduor. She is determined to push on nonetheless. Her sharp tongue appeared to have rattled MPs when she reportedly told them off that she and her board know what they are doing and that they wouldn’t wish to be ‘lectured’.

Even if Ms Yeda and team eventually wriggle themselves out of the avalanche of accusations – from known and unknown destinations, they will certainly be left bruised.

Should they take the wisdom of the Mexican dog to run and live to fight another day and or fight to their success or to their oblivion?

As Cofek, we must get on record. We know that the board of KPLC means well. It probably has the right strategy. But it certainly has a wrong way of execution. Indeed, a strategy is as good as how well it is executed.

In the words of Chinua Achebe, the board should chase away the fox and blame itself for wandering in the bush? Why?

The KPLC board has been accused of holding a high number of meetings – 112 against an average 4 to 8 board meetings within a year. By their very nature, too many meetings encroach on the management purview – if for nothing else, by not allowing the senior management to work as they spend a lot of time at those very meetings.

Again, with each board member costing at least Sh20,000 in sitting allowance, such costs when put together with international travels for directors and senior management of KPLC would be costly.

Meetings are for exploration and consensus. They are not in themselves a means to an end – they are a process to an end. Unlike the private sector, where the KPLC board members appear best-suited to be serving, decisions can be made on phone and or via email – in the public service key decisions require minutes of meetings as official record.

In short, the Yeda board appears to have fatally forgotten that in the public service, the process is more important than the final product or output.

Another misadventure by the KPLC board was perhaps a wrong assumption that changing the KPLC CEO was a panacea to all ills that afflicts the firm. It doesn’t. It could have worked to an extent but the timing and how it was executed became counterproductive.

After all, those who seek equity must come with clean hands.

That the KPLC board is prescribing to cure the KPLC ills from a wrong diagnosis could be an understatement. The challenges at KPLC are systemic. They are political. They arise from ownership structure and curious cushioning from government.

How else can one explain the National Treasury huge guarantees and suspect power purchase agreements that line private pockets – in dividends – more than public coffers? Again, why is corruption dealt with in hand gloves? Even with massive thefts, no key person including former CEOs or board members are serving a jail term.

Another wrong strategy for the KPLC board has been their focus with majority of their energies internally than share their energies for internal and other priority external key issues.

As the board engages itself inwardly, it has lost key grounds on key issues – including but not limited to waning relationship with the consumers and the increasingly exorbitant costs of new connections. The customer care quality has equally dipped.

If KPLC continues, as it does, to sign off expensive and new PPA’s with the uptake going lower than a third of the idle power they pay for – it would only take the board to be akin to be driving blindfolded to kill demand for new connections by making it totally unaffordable.

No wonder KPLC made a Sh2.98 billion net loss in the year to June 2020, the first loss in 17 years.

But then, should the sector regulator, Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) watch helplessly as KPLC fights for its’ life?

In our second part of a three-part series, we will be focusing on options for KPLC going forward

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