Chronic fuel shortages keep Malawians talking

On-going fuel shortages are forcing Malawian drivers to wait in queues at petrol stations that can sometimes last for days. Photo by Travis Lupick.

One theme runs through conversations in Malawi more than any other:  the topic of fuel – and a lack thereof.

No one’s discovered oil underneath Malawi, the government has all but exasperated the foreign currency reserves it needs to buy petrol and diesel from sources outside the country, and no monetary institution trusts President Bingu wa Mutharika enough to give the government the loans it could use to import fuel on a regular basis.

The result is an erratic pattern of supply that often leaves tanks empty.

Here’s a look back at how the fuel crisis has played out over the last couple of months, and a snapshot of day-to-day chatter on the matter in Malawi.

Following a brief but welcome respite, fuel queues have been the norm since the beginning of November. The customers waiting in those lines are paying more at the pump than ever before, and the pains of price increases are being felt by everybody, save only the country’s most wealthy.

On November 8, the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority raised the price of petrol by 31 percent and the price of diesel by 38 percent ($2.30 USD per litre up from $1.80 and $2.10 per litre from $1.60, respectively).

The following day, the Minibus Owners Association of Malawi issued new rates for their vehicles – a primary means of transport in Malawi. An analysis by the country’s largest daily newspaper found that fares were increased by an average of 37.5 percent – a hike that many citizens of the impoverished nation simply cannot afford.

In the streets, where most work in Malawi’s informal economy and live hand-to-mouth, reactions to the new minibus fares were bitter with frustration.

“My business helps me look after my family,” began a woman selling bananas. “Now, boarding minibuses with the hike will not make sense because the money I will be making will only be enough for transport.”

“It is not only transport, but everything on the market that will shoot up,” another commuter noted. “Yet our salaries remain the same. These are very tough times.”

This all followed weeks of what the papers described as “total chaos” at filling stations across Malawi.

Towards the end of October, licensed vendors from Mzuzu in northern Malawi to Blantyre in the south, began to run dry. By mid-November, people whose businesses absolutely required fuel took to sleeping in their vehicles, which were queued around petrol stations in hopes of catching morning deliveries. When, in most cases, none came, drivers turned to illegal hoarders.

“The black market continues to thrive, with desperate people paying as high as 10 000 kwacha [$60 USD] per 20-litre jerry can,” an editorial from one of October’s papers read. “That is 500 MWK [Malawi kwacha] per litre –about 72 percent more than the normal pump.”

On October 27, the government revealed it had gone to great lengths to make 500 million MWK (roughly $3 million USD) available to Petroleum Importers Limited. That eased queues and reduced reliance on the black market for a time.

But it didn’t last long.

And so six weeks into this most-recent round of acute shortages, little has changed. In Blantyre, queues all over the city stretch on for blocks. On December 7, Energy Minister Goodall Gondwe pledged that loans from India and regional financial institutions would restore a regular supply of fuel by January; but that announcement was met with skepticism.

As the public outcry over increased minibus fares makes clear, tempers are escalating.

November’s drastic climb in transportation costs came on the heels of a 10 percent devaluation of the Malawi kwacha. Couple that with the fact that wages for the vast majority of Malawians have not increased with the rate of inflation, and families across the country are hurting.

Since the hike in minibus fares, fuel is all that anyone in Blantyre is talking about. Surprisingly, it was my eight-year-old neighbor who I found delivered the most-apt summary of the past two months events.

“From here to town it is 100 kwacha,” she told me, referring to a five-minute trip that just one day earlier, cost half the price.

“It is too much. It is not right,” she concluded.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

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