Accepted paper:

Chasing 'non-consuming' electricity meters in Maputo: Prepayment technology and the disciplining of unruly African urban lives


Idalina Baptista (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

The paper looks at Maputo’s electric grid to examine the folding of urban space and livelihoods into the design and maintenance of prepayment technology in the provision of electricity. It draws on intellectual contributions from Anthropology, Geography and STS and on ongoing fieldwork since 2013.

Paper long abstract:

The introduction of prepayment technology across Africa is slowly reshaping how electricity is provided and consumed, and reshaping the urbanity of African cities in its wake, albeit not always with benefits to improved energy justice. Research on the fragmented and often exclusionary access to prepaid electricity, important as it is, tends to neglect the intricate daily work of maintenance and re-assemblage of the electric grid to prevent blackouts (cf. Graham and Thrift 2007, Out of Order). This is particularly the case in African cities where infrastructural and technical deficits, compounded with urban informality, poverty, and corruption, make the work of electricity provision a rather challenging socio-technical problem. This paper examines the constant everyday work of maintenance and re-assemblage of the prepaid electric grid in Maputo, Mozambique to investigate how the city's urbanity and residents' livelihoods are folded into the design and maintenance of its infrastructure. It focuses on the labor of workers of the national electricity company who crisscross Maputo daily to chase after 'non-consuming' prepayment meters - meters that have not been topped up for a long time, either as the result of faulty operation, tampering, or disconnection. The paper shows how this continuous work of finding 'non-consuming' meters constitutes a pragmatic approach to disciplining Maputo's unruly urban and social condition without ever seeking to fully taming or fixing its 'lacks'. The paper concludes with a reflection on what a socio-technical approach to the maintenance of electricity infrastructure has to offer to the theorization of Africa's urbanization and urban livelihoods.

panel P130
Urban technologies and technologies of urbanity in Africa