Service continuity in EgyptApril 13, 2020
The Energy Year talks to Khaled Abu Bakr, executive chairman of TAQA Arabia, about lessons learned from previous periods of political turmoil and how investments in digitalising the company’s operations are both paying dividends during the current crisis. TAQA Arabia is the largest private sector energy distribution company in Egypt.
To what extent has TAQA Arabia had to alter its operations during the Covid-19 crisis?
In TAQA Arabia, our main priority has always been safety and security. We are now implementing even stricter measures to ensure the health and safety of our employees, business partners and clients. In times like these, one cannot jeopardise safety, even if that means suspending some ongoing new projects for a temporary period. At the same time, we have to make sure that our customers don’t suffer from gas and electricity supply interruptions. This is our top priority.
Our operations run 24/7 without any interruptions to service in several locations throughout Egypt. In 2019, we reached our one-millionth gas customer and we are currently servicing around 1.3 million customers across the country in both the natural gas and electricity sectors. Per the mandate we have been given by the Ministry of Petroleum, our objective is to add 150,000 customers per year in the upcoming five years. That means that we have to connect at least 12,000 new households to the country’s national gas grid every month.
Business continuity is crucial. We do not want to fall behind schedule even though we currently have to avoid entering households to limit both workers’ and customer’s exposure to Covid-19. Therefore, we are trying to get external works done as much as possible and we are limiting internal house works for the time being. There are some connection techniques which allow us to offset that inaccessibility in certain cases.
We are also ready to respond to any emergency calls from households, factories, hospitals or any other client. We increased the number of our emergency teams over the past few weeks and broke them down into smaller groups. Each group consists of only two engineers, so if anybody gets infected by the coronavirus, we can quickly pull that group out while the rest of the emergency teams continue to attend customer requests.
How has Covid-19 impacted the company’s day-to-day activities?
Since 2011, we have witnessed several periods of unrest and uprising in Egypt during which we were not able to access our offices and were short of communication tools. This experience prompted us to enhance our digital infrastructure and build up solid crisis management and communications teams. We have managed to turn TAQA into a virtual organisation where we can comfortably work away from our offices. We have trained our people on these conditions since 2011.
Due to the diversity of the locations in which we operate and of our various activities, most of our executive managers have been used to attending general assemblies and board meetings online. As a result, the current crisis did not cause additional hardships for our company management; we just had to switch to all virtual meetings.
During the first quarter of 2020, we have also been working to shift towards a fully electronic billing and payment collection system. We have so far converted 20% of our billables to the new scheme, and I expect the Covid-19 crisis will urge us to complete the set-up of a well-functioning online financial management system. After the crisis, we will put in place new programmes to enhance this process. All companies and customers should move to online banking as much as possible.
How can smaller businesses survive the turbulent times ahead in 2020?
Each company and institution is facing a different challenge, but the first priority must be to maintain clear and effective communication. You need to harmonise all the crisis-related messaging and communication between different departments, including HSE, HR, finance and operations. You must get all of your employees on the same page and offer full transparency to customers to eliminate any anxiety they may have about the service you are offering.
You also need a great deal of resilience and flexibility to deal with any unexpected situations and challenges stemming from the crisis, including limitations to movements and employees falling sick.
Cash flow is an important aspect too, especially for a company like ours that depends on billing customers on a monthly basis. We should offset the shortage of revenue to continue operations. However, it’s not easy to deal with banks these days. As a result of the restrictions that were put in place to combat the coronavirus, banks in Egypt are limiting daily cash withdrawals to a relatively small amount, although I am confident that some of these restrictions will be waived as soon as a clearer path starts to appear.
What do you think will be the lasting impact of Covid-19 on the Egyptian economy?
My personal belief is that Egypt will emerge out of this crisis a much stronger nation. The government has been ahead of the different industries and the entire population in terms of introducing the necessary mitigation measures. All the restrictions and policies have been well calculated. They were neither weak nor exaggerated, and the way they have been communicated was extremely clear for everyone.
We feel confident that the government understands what the nation requires at these difficult times and they are one step ahead of us. Business has not been totally destroyed. We are working cautiously, but we are working. We are also still importing equipment for our power stations. So, it is time to start thinking about the drivers for post-crisis growth.
Egypt’s economic growth will be slower, but I do not fear total economic collapse, which many countries will have to fight after the crisis. Getting back to business as usual will not be a walk in the park, but it’s all about resilience and nations’ discipline in weathering the storm over the coming months. It is hard to predict what the long-term consequences of Covid-19 are going to be. Right now, however, the priority has to be fighting the virus and protecting our people.