With life in Addis getting more and more hectic, many people are finding that keeping up with paying bills is getting more challenging. The answer to this problem comes in the form of agents, who charge small service fees to pay bills on time for people living in residential areas. While the service is seen as a good thing by residents, it is still not a reliable source for income for the agents, and with more and more competition on the horizon, it may become challenging for them to stay in business, reports AGEGNEHU ASSEGID, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
Life in cities tends to veer towards the hectic, leaving people with little time to handle the everyday tasks that come with living in an urban area. Tight deadlines and busy schedules mean that some errands may fall through the cracks.
Various agencies are now emerging in order to take some of the burden off residents and turn a profit in the process. One creative solution are agents and agencies which take over the payment of bills for people in both houses and condominium complexes, including water and electricity bills.
Matiyos, who moved to Addis from Wolaita four years ago, is a day laborer at Feres Bet Condominium near the Adwa Bridge. He works as a fee agent during his spare time. He lives with his two brothers, who also work with him.
“The work is uneven, so I don’t have a plan to make a living only this way,” he explains. Eventually he plans to buy and drive a bajaj, a three wheeled motorised rickshaw.
Matiyos and his two brothers make 20-30 Br for every bill they pay, or more if the customer wants to tip them.
More customers request services to pay water bills than electricity bills because of the deadline on water payments. Aster Tsegaye, who lives at the Feres Bet Condominium is a beneficiary of the service. Although she uses a prepayment method for her electricity bill, she frequently forgets the deadline for the water bill payment. But using the service has made her life easier. The fee for the service is very reasonable considering relief it gives, according to Aster.
“I am not working and I have a daughter. Since I have to take care of her, without the service it would be difficult to keep up,” she says.
Aster has an agent who brings her the bill at home after she pays it off. Aster then reimburses her for the bill and pays a service charge.
“She only charges us 10 Br to pay the water bill. It is very cheap considering the hassle it reduces. It is very inconvenient for me to go to the payment office by taxi,” she says.
Fuad Kedir is the owner of a shop at the Gotera condominium complex. He also uses bill payment services.
“I pay 15 Br for a single service. I would have been unable to work properly on my shop if it had not been for the fee agent,” explained Fuad.
Fuad’s agent for several months was Allahamdu Nuri.
“This is not my permanent job,” says Allahamdu. “Since there are many competitors and the work is more seasonal, I do not fully depend on it.”
Customers who are simply renting in the neighbourhood are another problem facing agents. Because their model involves paying the bill out of pocket first and then collecting money later, they depend on being able to find their customers in the same place every month.
Aster’s agent for example, suffered losses when the people she was paying bills for moved after she had already paid their bill.
Many fee payment agents do not depend on giving the service for a living. Other than the timing and the emerging competiton, new payment methods such as Hello Cash are also making the work less reliable. Another popular payment method is the Lehulu payment system, set up by Kifiyia Financial Technology Plc. It allows people to make all their bill payments at a single window.
Lehulu began working with Ethiopian Electric Utility (EEU) in 2013. However the system has not yet worked out all the kinks. EEU has experienced data delays with Lehulu, which affect customer service.
“They are supposed to deliver the data within 24 hours, but we only receive the data every 5-7 days on average. Sometimes, this causes us to accidentally terminate our contract with some customers, despite them having already paid,” said Belay Kifle, from EEU’s billing reserve and finance collection department.
However, Kifiya claims that it works to reduce delays.
“Data delays are rare. It could have been due to network problems or problems with EEU’s servers,” says Yilebes Addis, chief information officer of Kifiya.
Lehulu has more than 400,000 customers who use it to pay electricity bills, and more than 340,000 customers who pay water bills. It has 35 payment centres in Addis Abeba.
Derash Home to Home Delivery Service is an agency that joined the market last year. Among other delivery services, it also provides bill payment services, and partners with DHL and Belcash.
Derash charges 15 Br for a bill payment if the customer brings the bill to them in their office, located in Gotera condominium.
“If the customer wishes us to come collect the bill ourselves, we charge an extra five Birr,” explains Tamirat Lakew, manager of Derash.
Tamirat and Alemayehu Workeshet, the deputy manager are graduates of Information Technology and Sociology.
“We entered the market after leaving our former jobs. We were sure we would get a lot of business,” said Alemayehu. What they have seen so far is promising, he explains.
“Full guarantees and discounted fees are what make us different from others,” says Tamirat.
Tewabech Sahile, an owner of a beauty salon, is a customer of Derash. She began to use Derash as an agent after realizing that her business required her to stay open all the time for customers.
“I have been a customer of Derash for one year. I prefer to use them because they are cheaper than individual agents,” says Tewabech. “If I try to pay myself, I waste a lot of time, because of crowds, or the network might be down. They can pay my bill at another centre even if the system fails.”
Zewde Diriba is a mother of five. She speaks of the agents’ services as a favour for her lifestyle.
“They save me time and energy since I am getting older,” she says.
Even though working as an agent does not have a promising nature, it is giving an immense relief beyond the measurement of money. Especially those who work in customer service-intensive sectors, like Tewabech, and Eyob Tesfaye, who owns a barbershop.
The nature of his work obliges him to stay active waiting for his customers.
“If I go out, customers may be treated unfairly and I may lose them. Using fee payment services makes it possible for me to be here all the time. They give me a service worth paying for,” he says.
Although people using fee payment agents are very appreciative, there are even more developments on the way to make bill payments more convenient. EEU has a plan to make bill payments possible on ATMs. While customer convenience will only increase in the future, whether fee payment agents will be able to compete still remains to be seen.
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