So­lar project in limbo over com­pen­sa­tion

. . . af­fected Mafeteng vil­lagers un­cer­tain of terms for M400m ven­ture

Sunday Express - - FRONT PAGE - Sech­aba Mokhethi

UN­CER­TAINTY over the com­pen­sa­tion that vil­lagers are to re­ceive for the loss of their farm­land has cast a shadow over prepa­ra­tions for Le­sotho’s first so­lar power plant in Mafeteng dis­trict.

Twenty-three res­i­dents from three vil­lages in the Mafeteng area have agreed to al­low their land to be used for the 40ha project, which will cost about M400-mil­lion.

But in in­ter­views with the MNN Cen­tre for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism (MNNCIJ), the vil­lagers com­plained there is still no clar­ity about the terms of the land deal with the OnePower Con­sor­tium, the pre­ferred bid­der.

One of them, Khauli Lenko, said he had been promised a once-off lump sum before con­struc­tion starts and monthly pay­ments for the 25-year du­ra­tion of the project

But Mr Lenko said the com­pany had not com­mit­ted it­self to dis­clos­ing ex­act amounts.

“Do you think we will ever be com­pen­sated?” anx­iously asked an­other of the landown­ers, ’Mathabo Ntomane.

She said she took some time before agree­ing to relin­quish her fields, fear­ing that she would be “tricked” into do­ing so with­out com­pen­sa­tion.

Ms Ntomane also stated that the vil­lage coun­sel­lor ad­vised her not to agree to any­thing before the fi­nan­cial terms of the deal were set­tled.

“As I had al­ready agreed, I reck­oned it was a waste of time with­draw­ing my con­sent be­cause other vil­lagers were con­tin­u­ing with the process and there was a ru­mour that our fields were go­ing to be con­fis­cated any­way,” Ms Ntomane said.

The lawyer rep­re­sent­ing com­mu­nity coun­cils in Mafeteng, Charles Tjelle, ar­gued that the con­sor­tium had “put the cart before the horse” by clinch­ing the land deal with­out first spell­ing its fi­nan­cial of­fer.

“When things are done prop­erly, land should not be touched before the owner knows the price and agrees to it,” Ad­vo­cate Tjelle said.

Now that this mis­take had been made, the is­sue of com­pen­sa­tion “should be han­dled with kid gloves and should match the vil­lagers’ loss, as they sur­vived on agri­cul­tural pro­duce from these fields.”

The OnePower con­sor­tium con­sists of two con­cerns – OnePower Le­sotho and Power Con­sult. OnePower Le­sotho is, in turn, a joint un­der­tak­ing of So­lar Tur­bine Group Le­sotho ( STG Le­sotho) and the United States-based So­lar Tur­bine Group In­ter­na­tional (STG In­ter­na­tional), with STG Le­sotho hold­ing 51 per­cent of the stock.

Cen­tral to the en­tire en­ter­prise is Matthew Orosz, a direc­tor of STG In­ter­na­tional, sec­re­tary of STG Le­sotho’s three-mem­ber ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee and chief ex­ec­u­tive of OnePower, who in­sisted that Ba­sotho af­fected by the power plant are “both re­cep­tive to the project and pos­i­tively dis­posed to­wards OnePower and its part­ners”.

He said the con­sor­tium had en­gaged chiefs, the lo­cal com­mu­nity coun­cil and the dis­trict coun­cil in the su­per­vi­sion and ap­proval of all pro­cesses.

Mr Orosz, how­ever, in­structed Kopano Tšenoli, who is STG Le­sotho president, to re­spond to the ques­tions of MNNCIJ but the lat­ter could not di­vulge any fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on how the con­sor­tium was work­ing with the vil­lagers.

“We are un­easy to open up finer de­tails on this project as we are still on a very dili­gent stage of ne­go­ti­a­tions and we don’t want to do any­thing that may com­pro­mise us,” Mr Tšenoli said.

MNNCIJ took the mat­ter to Power Con­sult of­fi­cial Pot­lako Se­fako who was men­tioned by one of the land own­ers, ’Mathato Semuli, as the one who was con­vinc­ing them to sign agree­ments trans­fer­ring their rights to the con­sor­tium. Mr Se­fako dil­ly­dal­lied re­spond­ing un­til the pub­li­ca­tion of the story.

Deep­en­ing the vil­lagers’ sus­pi­cions is the han­dling of “form C” doc­u­ments from the TšanaTalana Com­mu­nity Coun­cil, which serve as proof of own­er­ship of land held un­der cus­tom­ary ten­ure.

Ms Semuli, whose three fields to­talling nine acres, fall within the project area, said that she was shocked when in­stead of be­ing is­sued to her, the form was al­legedly handed to OnePower to fa­cil­i­tate the lease ap­pli­ca­tion.

“The com­pany came back to con­sult us af­ter the au­thor­i­ties asked it to bring ap­proval let­ters from us agree­ing to trans­fer our land,” Ms Semuli said.

The sec­re­tary of the com­mu­nity coun­cil, Palesa Mokotjo, told the MNNCIJ that the forms had never been in OnePower’s hands.

How­ever, Ms Mokotjo said she re­called that the Mafeteng dis­trict coun­cil sec­re­tary, ‘Mathato Mak­wa­tle, had re­moved the doc­u­ments on one oc­ca­sion, al­though she did not know why.

For her part, Ms Mak­wa­tle said OnePower had taken the forms to the Land Ad­min­is­tra­tion Author­ity for con­sol­i­da­tion into a sin­gle lease doc­u­ment, but that the author­ity had wanted proof of land trans­fer from the own­ers.

She added that the forms were im­me­di­ately re­turned to the of­fice of the com­mu­nity coun­cil of­fice.

The vil­lagers are also wor­ried that the lo­cal firm hired by the con­sul­tancy to deal with their con­cerns, Puisano Con­sul­tancy, is not suf­fi­ciently in­de­pen­dent to rep­re­sent their in­ter­ests.

One of Puisano’s di­rec­tors, ‘Mare­i­tumetse Se­fako, said the con­sul­tancy would me­di­ate be­tween the main con­trac­tor and the vil­lagers to en­sure that the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment is han­dled in a way that sat­is­fies both par­ties.

How­ever, the MNNCIJ has estab­lished that Ms Se­fako is re­lated to both Pot­lako Se­fako and Rele­bo­hile Se­fako, who head Power Con­sult, one of the mem­bers of the OnePower con­sor­tium.

In an in­ter­view, ‘Mare­i­tumetse Se­fako vowed to main­tain Puisano’s in­de­pen­dence. It would not favour the in­ter­ests of Power Con­sult, de­spite her “brother in law” head­ing that com­pany.

“Our en­gage­ment was a mat­ter of skills and ex­pe­ri­ence,” she said, adding that Pu­siano’s aim is to en­sure that vil­lagers ben­e­fit ma­te­ri­ally from the project.

The MNNCIJ has estab­lished that Puisano was in­cor­po­rated on 6 April this year – about a month af­ter the OnePower Con­sor­tium was se­lected as a pre­ferred bid­der on the so­lar project.

Ms Se­fako said that af­ter the land was val­ued, vil­lagers di­rectly af­fected by the power plant might re­ceive their re­ward as a lump sum. A com­mu­nity fund would also be set up to fi­nance a project to be de­cided upon by the vil­lagers.

She said Puisano ex­pected to com­plete its study and pro­duce a re­port in Novem­ber. Pay­ments to vil­lagers would start in De­cem­ber before OnePower be­gins con­struc­tion.

Power Con­sult would main­tain the plant for 25 years, when the gov­ern­ment will de­cide whether to take it over or ex­tend the con­sor­tium’s con­tract.

Le­sotho’s elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion is cur­rently es­ti­mated at 176MW a year, while the coun­try pro­duces 74MW through its ’Muela Hy­dropower Sta­tion and the un­re­li­able Man­tšonyane Power Sta­tion.

The bal­ance is im­ported from Eskom and Elec­t­ri­ci­dade De Mozam­bique, at a pro­jected cost of M432.7-mil­lion for the 2017/8 fi­nan­cial year.

The new so­lar plant will feed an ad­di­tional 20MW to the Le­sotho Elec­tric­ity Com­pany (LEC), as well as cre­at­ing about 250 jobs.

It will be partly funded by the African De­vel­op­ment Bank, which an­nounced in Au­gust this year that it would pro­vide a grant of US$695 500 (about M9.27mil­lion) to­wards its de­vel­op­ment.

A June 2017 min­is­te­rial re­port re­vealed that Le­sotho’s Public Of­fi­cers’ De­fined Con­tri­bu­tion Pen­sion Fund has ear­marked M280-mil­lion for in­vest­ment in the scheme.

MNN Cen­tre for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism (MNNCIJ) pro­duced this story. All views are ours. See www.lescij.org for our sto­ries, ac­tiv­i­ties and fund­ing sources.

LEC Power Sta­tion in Ha Ra­marot­hole that will be fed by the so­lar plant.

ONEPOWER mark­ings in Ha Ra­marot­hole where the so­lar plant will be con­structed.

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