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UK ghettometers make Jamaican utility companies look great

PAYG is a lesson in branding

By Ricky Browne

When I left Jamaica to live here in the UK last year, I knew I would be leaving behind a few luxuries – but I never imagined that JPS (the electricity utility company) would be one of them.

Some of the luxuries I left behind in Kingston included warm sunshine, a swimming pool, my car, a weekly helper to clean my apartment (admittedly sometimes a little too well) and soursop juice.

Over here I’ve made up for some of that loss with the ability to walk outside without worrying about being mugged or worse, the NHS, and perhaps one day the ability to jump on a plane and visit nearby destinations in Europe.

Moving from lockdown in Jamaica to lockdown in the UK meant that certain things I’d already dispensed with I continued to do without. Things like meeting up with friends, walking around without wearing a mask, going to a restaurant. Or a party – remember parties?

JPS is not well-loved in Jamaica

But never did I think that I would look back on the service I got from the JPS with rose tinted glasses – of a time when things were more simple and carefree.

The ability to receive an over-priced electricity bill in my mailbox, and the ability to pay it via my internet banking wasn’t something I thought much about.

NEW APARTMENT

But recently I moved into a new apartment in a new town – well its actually a very old town, with an ancient Roman road running through it – but its new for me.

I had previously looked at the apartment and everything seemed fine. No swimming pool, but I could live without that. No air conditioning, but given that I lived without that in Kingston – thanks to the expense – I was pretty sure I could live without it in the cold north. I had a parking space, which is a big deal over here, but as I don’t have a car yet, it wasn’t something I desperately needed.

The apartment did have rooms and a roof and running water, and electricity, so it seemed to me that it was fine.

Before moving in, I was alarmed by a lead story in the local paper that the police were on the lookout for a dog and its owner who had bit not one, but two people. The dog that is, not the owner. On two different occasions.

What kind of place was I moving to, I wondered? Where the lead story was dog bites man, and no mention of murder, rife unemployment, hurricane, drugs, drought or flood?

PAYG

But I put those concerns aside and on the day I moved in I met up with the real estate agent to get the keys and for him to show me a couple things about the apartment.

One of the first things that he did was to give me a plastic stick and explain to me that I would need to charge up this stick with funds to then place into the electric meter to pay for electricity.

“Its pay-as-you-go” he said proudly.

“It’s a ghettometer” said I.

With a ghettometer you must take this plastic stick and walk to your nearest post office or whatever and then pay to have the stick loaded with however much money you put on it. Once back at your ghettometer, you put the stick into the meter and load up the charge. The meter then charges you a certain sum per day for the joy of having a ghettometer and then also charges you for your electricity usuage, probably at a higher rate than you would pay if you received a bill through the mail like a normal, respectable person.

How convenient is that? Great no?

Yeah. Well such a system is great for the landlord, as he no longer needs to worry about his tenant running off leaving a huge electricity bill in his wake.

But it is pure manure for the person who is on the receiving and giving end.

MARKETING 101

Marketing 101 dictates that if your product is a pile of manure and you are competing against something much better than a pile of manure, like a bucket of urine for example, come up with a great-sounding brand and some fool will buy it anyway.

So if you have a ghettometer, tell everyone it’s a “Pay-as-you-go” system. How cool is that? Pay-as-you-go. So modern. So of-the-mmoent. So cool. And then to make it even cooler you can give it initials instead. “Its PAYG!” you say smartly.

Don’t call it what it is, whatever you do. Don’t call it a ghettometer.

Really, the ghettometer is a product for the landlord, not the poor, unfortunate tenant. But its name tries to suggest that the product is designed with the tenant in mind. PAYG! How cool!

I think I have come up with this term ‘ghettometer’ myself, but I think it does the system great justice.

MANCHURIAN ONE-ARMED BANDIT

Its not the first time I have had the displeasure of living with a ghettometer. Many moons ago I worked in a poor part of Manchester – the city in the UK, not the parish in Jamaica.

Poor part, you ask? Is there any other part?

Well, that’s a bit unfair. There are actually some very rich parts to Manchester – populated by football players and the like. True, rich or poor, all of it suffers the same miserable weather. But lots of the city, with one of the largest student populations in Europe, is only suitable for university students.

A one-armed bandit

I was a university student in Manchester, but at this point I was working, and I was living in a working-class part of Manchester which made my previous digs in the slum of Moss Side look luxurious in comparison.

Thankfully, I wasn’t there long. And I was sharing it with a good friend Marcus (aka Mosiah Garvey) Williams who was doing his doctorate in something technical that was way beyond my comprehension.

Anyway, the place had a ghettometer. But this was an earlier type, where instead of the oh-so-modern plastic stick, you had to actually buy tokens from the post office, which you then fed into the meter, like you would coins into a one-armed bandit.

One time – in the height of winter – I went away for a couple days – in the winter I might add. It was a long weekend, and for some reason I came back on a Saturday night, I found two things. One, Marcus had gone away for a few days. Two, the ghettometer had run out of juice, and there were no tokens around.

It was freezing and the post office was closed. There was no light. There was no heat. And best of all, the post office would be closed the next day as it was Sunday, and it would be closed the day after that too, as it was a long weekend.

Many of my Jamaican friends may not appreciate how cold it can get in the UK with no heat available. Oh – no hot water either. No TV. No internet. But trust me, it wasn’t fun.

So, I know all about the wonders of a ghettometer.

MY CURRENT GHETTOMETER

Back to the day I moved into my new apartment. I told the real estate guy that if I’d known about the ghettometer I wouldn’t have agreed to take the place.

But it was too late. I’d already signed the contract. And to be honest, apart from the ghettometer, the place is fine.

Later the real estate company told me that there’s an app for that – where I can pay via my mobile phone instead of having to traipse down to the post office whenever I’m on the verge of entering the dark ages. That would, I suppose, be an improvement. I haven’t been able to discover it yet – but I’m still looking.

ECOTRICITY

I contacted Ecotricity – the company I need to pay for the pleasure of my ghettometer. I told them that green energy was all well and good, but I did not desire to pay an inflated rate if I could get a lower rate elsewhere.

Ecocity, which claims to be “Britain’s greenest energy company” has since written to me and sent me a new stick – sorry, I mean a “top up electricity key”– of my very own. Its still a stick though.

My very own stick — AKA top up electricity key Photo: Ricky Browne

“Welcome!” the letter from Ecocity said. “Thank you for choosing Ecotricity – we’re really pleased to have you with us,” it said. I have no recollection of choosing them for anything. “Together we will be building a greener Britain” it said – as the company claims to power my home using green energy, and that its electricity is “100% green”.

What I do know is that I have to pay about 30p per day for the benefit of having a ghettometer – that’s about £9 per month, before I’ve used any electricity at all.

The company assumes I will use about £912 per year – which works out to about £76 per month. That’s about J$15,337 – or more than twice the amount I was paying in Jamaica. Bear in mind that other people I know living in similar conditions pay less that this rate. I believe I am paying an inflated rate thanks to having a ghettometer instead of a regular bill.

Over here there are multiple choices of electricity providers, but its not yet clear to me if you can change provider when you are on one of these glorious ghettometers. Some of the utility companies I’ve approached look very excited at the prospect of getting a new customer at first. But when they find out that I have a ‘PAYG’ system them seem to lose interest fast for some reason.

Mind you, I don’t know if there is any financial benefit to switching. Still, I live in hope.

“Thanks again for joing us. You will be making a difference with every energy bill” Ecotricity assured me. A difference to what though? My bank balance? Their profits? Yes and yes. To a greener planet where we can all live in harmony and peace? Well… we’ll see.

Still, I miss the idea of getting an over-inflated electricity bill from JPS like a normal person. And I don’t think I can adapt to this manure, whether said manure is green or not.

UTILITY COMPANIES IN JAMAICA

Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, JPS has been promoting its own version of this hell to people in real-life ghettos in the innercity. The kind of place where dog bites never make the news, and even murders don’t for being too commonplace.

Stealing electricity is big business in some parts of Jamaica Photo: Jamaica Observer

I don’t know how much success JPS has been having with this. Part of the idea is that people will prefer to pay for their electricity than get it for free by stealing it via a wire casually thrown over the mains.

The idea of becoming a more fully-fledged productive member of society, paying your own way rather than stealing is one that should be applauded.

But living under the constant fear – threat really — that the very moment that you don’t feed that ghettometer some money is the very moment that your light will be cut off is not really a pleasant one. At least they don’t have to worry about the heat being cut off – though they might lose the AC.

I don’t think this system makes you feel like a valued member of society. Especially if the poor ghettometer user has to actually pay a higher rate than his rich co-citizens in upper St Andrew or wherever.

On the other hand, Jamaicans embraced a similar pay-as-you-go system for their mobile phones. So much so that very Digicel or FLOW customers receive a monthly bill, rich or not. So maybe, just maybe, a person living in Manley Meadows or wherever will be happy to pay for his light via a ghettometer instead of getting a proper bill.

But for me, I think its manure. And I look forward to the day when I can put this back in the past.

At least here in the UK I am almost 100 per cent certain that every time I try to turn on the tap, that a clear and colourless liquid will flow out of it . The NWC – the water utility provider in Jamaica – seems to think that water is a luxury in the land of wood and water, and that you should feel blessed every time they deign to put water in your pipes.

So thank goodness for a first world water supply. And thank goodness I at least don’t have a ghettometer for water.

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