On Empty

Cars line up for the last of fuel in town at a local BP station in Lilongwe.

There was no way I was going to stand in line to buy petrol. What’s next? Stand in line for bread? I moved to Malawi, not Cuba.

Six months later…
Well, as it turns out, Malawi is the country where one stands in line for petrol. And diesel, of course, but for the purposes of this post, when I say petrol, I usually mean both types of fuel.

It’s a lack of foreign exchange which is said to cause the shortage of fuel at a national level, which in turn stops all other economic activity. The produce at the market is one minute away from rotting because the trucks that bring it to the city cannot fill their tanks and thus the deliveries become inconsistent, which also result in an increase of price of what is available, if it’s not bad yet.

Any goods that need to be refrigerated or frozen are also looking suspicious at the supermarkets. That’s because the generators that are needed every day due to electricity cuts (don’t get me started) run on diesel, of which there is none for days on end.

So, no food at the house. A limited amount of people can then chose to go to a restaurant, but guess what, nearly everything in the menu is not available, for the same reasons there is no food at home. Then an even more limited number of Malawians can decide to escape the whole problem and spend the weekend somewhere else. Oh, wait, does it take a tank of gas to get there? Right.

This is but a thin voice in the chorus of complaints that can be heard on the subject of how the lack of fuel affects the economy. The Economic Association of Malawi estimated that last year the economy lost about $730 million because of the fuel shortages.

Cars circling around the block of a local BP in Lilongwe, waiting for fuel.

This year, the on-and-off shortage decisively started in December, though it offered the necessary previews from October on, and people then were not too worried about it because the same thing happened last year at around the same time, and things went back to normal by January. It is June: normal, is now the opposite of what it used to be.

There are hardly any motorists in Malawi who don’t keep a full jerrycan at home, though I admit it took me about six months and a couple of black-market transactions to get with the program.

And the black market of fuel, well, there’s the expanding bit of the economy, certainly. A couple of months ago Mr Wild and I were going on a little holiday to Nkhata Bay, on the northern part of Lake Malawi. It took a full tank of gas to get to Mzuzu (Mmmmmzuzu) and we were still about 45 minutes away from our destination, but of course, there was no petrol in town. Mzuzu (Mmmmmzuzu) is the third largest city in Malawi, so if they have no fuel, there is little hope that other towns in the north will. We went to a gas station and, in the middle of the bright, sunny day, bought five liters of petrol from one of the many vendors who had filled water gallon jugs with what should have been inside the pump, and charged three times the price. For more on the adventure that took getting the car back to Lilongwe, read The Ilala Ferry.

This is not cooking oil; it’s petrol, now conviniently sold in gallon jugs.

I was hanging out at the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA) office a few weeks ago when I noticed a brochure with a picture of the infamous petrol-filled water jugs. It was a brochure informing people that illegal fuel vending is a crime and ‘has become an eye sole’ – Malawians tend to confuse R with L and vice versa – recently. On the back of the brochure there was a message in bold type: Buy Fuels from any filling station, its safe for you. I’m not even going to point out the grammatical mistakes, though I’m tempted to.

Dear Mr Leckson Chiwaya, executive officer of MERA, we all buy our petrol from the filling station: the people who are getting to the E of their tanks, and stand in line for hours at a time, the people who get to the gas stations and are told there is no petrol, but feel free to ask the ‘random’ man standing there with a jug, and of course, the thousands of men who come with empty jugs and crowd around the pumps when a delivery of fuel is made.

Recently, the Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment told the Malawian people to ‘get used to fuel shortages‘. We are, but that shouldn’t mean the government is.


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