Tag Archives: fuel crisis

Health & Fuel: A follow up on Malawi’s shortage impact on health services.

The inaccessibility of oil in Malawi causes a considerable slowdown in regard to the overall productivity of the country. While hospitals have developed strategies to ensure continuous access to resources, their employees and patients are still queuing up nearby the pump.

According to Dr. Themba Mhango, the director at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), some patients are unable to attend appointments due to fuel shortages.

“At the moment about 50% of the patients with diabetes who are booked to come for sight-saving laser treatment are defaulting and when we call them to trace them, they almost always say it is due to no fuel or the cost of transport that has increased.” Said Dr. Mhango.

Malawi’s shortage has been going on for three years now. With people sometimes waiting six to eight hours without any guarantee of accessing the fuel, life has just taken another pace has lining up for gas is now part of everyone’s weekly reality.

QECH is a 1 300 bed public hospital receiving about 500,000 patients per year and spending nearly 2 million kwacha (approximately 12 500 Canadian dollars) a month on fuel. They managed to work around the shortage by creating contacts at gas stations so owners can inform them in advance whenever a delivery is about to happen. However, their work is still indirectly affected by this situation.
“Some staff may report for duties in the morning and then later disappear because they have gone queuing for fuel at the gas station.” Explains Dr. Mhango.

At Mwaiwanthu hospital, recent agreements with the Minister of Health have highly enhanced the life of the management team who no longer fear fuel shortages during the frequent power outages.

“It takes about 20 liters to run the hospital’s generator for six hours. Before this January, we had to find the fuel ourselves. Now we prepay for the fuel who is delivered to us.” explains Dr. Edgar Kutchindale, admitting that although this is a privilege it does not cover any of their staff members. Individuals must still queue up to buy gasoline or are forced to buy it off illegal vendors which requires them to pay up to three times more than the original price.

In the past few weeks, police attempted to implement better security on black market and began arresting the dealers who are keeping the oil in their houses. According to Christian Sidande from the Malawi Human Rights Commission; 1000 liters were confiscated last week.

These new interventions by the authorities appear to be favorable for the buyers. “With the outlawing of consumers buying fuel in containers has strangled the black market, hence we are seeing an improvement in the availability of fuel supply, we can ably fill up our vehicles at the gas  station,”  said Dr. Mhango.

However, for Mr. Sidande, the recent availability of fuel is only a temporary balm on a wound.

“In the last two weeks 90 million liters were bought by government. Their problem as eased a little for a short period of time but the president admits still not having a solution yet.” Said Sidande.

Fueling up without queuing up: Thoughts on the future of social media in Malawi

After three years of living with chronic petrol shortages, most Malawians have developed strategies for fueling up without queuing up. While befriending gas attendants for information on tanker arrivals will cost you a couple hundred kwacha, those buying on the black market continue to pay nearly triple the going rate. Across the country, the prospect of spending another evening or weekend “queuing in hope” at the pumps or paying exorbitant prices for fuel remains nothing short of a “way of life”.

For Malawi’s netizens, however, the petrol crisis has inspired an online awakening. Since the start of the fuel shortage, individuals have shared tips regarding the length of queues and the locations of stations with fuel, as well as petrol tanker sightings on Facebook and Twitter – mainly via mobile technology. Online communities devoted to the communal hunt for fuel have emerged, and continue to thrive as shortages persist.

Launched in June 2011, the Malawi Fuel Watch Facebook group remains one of the most popular sources of information on petrol availability within the country. Currently powered by almost 5,000 members, the group’s newsfeed affords onlookers a steady stream of fuel accessibility updates.

Frederick Bvalani, the creator of Malawi Fuel Watch, explains that the inspiration for the Facebook group came as he was on the hunt for petrol. “I wrote on my Facebook wall asking friends where I can find fuel. Kondwanie Chirembo, a Malawian friend who is working in Botswana, suggested that we create a group that people can use to inform one another where fuel is available – thereby reducing the need for people to keep going around town depleting the little fuel that remains looking for fuel.” For Chirembo, a co-administrator of the group, the need for such a group became clear “after noticing people’s perpetual questions about where fuel could be found, or the fact that they had wasted time and fuel to go to a place only to find no fuel.”

Malawi Fuel Watch began with Bvalani and Chirembo adding a few friends to a closed group. However, the pair determined “that the success of the group resided in having more members.” After the decision was made to make the group public, “each of the members recommended the group to another friend, then the group grew by word of mouth,” Chirembo explains. According to Chirembo, the group has managed to sustain itself over time due to its diligent membership uploading accurate information.

It is only natural for Malawi Fuel Watch’s home to be on Facebook “because that’s where the conversation started and also where we interact with most of our friends,” Bvalani says. According to Bvalani, “the group feature on Facebook also made it ideal because we don’t have to do all the posting and adding of friends – members can do that themselves. We can also moderate conversations to make sure only appropriate postings remain on the group wall.” In terms of expansion, Bvalani says not to expect to see Malawi Fuel Watch tweets anytime soon as Twitter does not offer the same flexibility as Facebook.

For years, underdeveloped communications networks and infrastructure have kept Internet costs high and penetration levels low across Malawi – currently, Internet World Stats reports that they sit at 4.5 per cent. While the Malawian presence on social media channels is on the rise, Internet and social media users remain concentrated in the country’s urban centres of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba. Despite these statistics, Bennett Kankuzi, a Malawian computer scientist and software engineer, attests that “clear growth” is underway.

Today, Malawi’s mobile phone providers are the driving force behind the recent advancements in Internet accessibility. The rapid uptake in mobile technology use, Kankuzi explains, is propelling Internet access throughout Malawi. According to Kankuzi, the growth of mobile technology usage, coupled with the ongoing liberalization of Malawi’s telecom market, will continue to spur Internet access across the country. Furthermore, Kankuzi believes that improvements in Internet accessibility will naturally lead to greater social media use – particularly on Facebook, where, according to Socialbakers, 17 per cent of Malawi’s netizens are already active. For Kankuzi, the rapid growth in mobile technology use, and vibrancy of Malawi’s online community in the face of the petrol crisis, prove the future of social media “looks bright” in the ‘warm heart of Africa’.

Bvalani believes that “social media use in Malawi will continue to grow as more and more people find out how useful it is.” He also agrees that mobile Internet use will be one of the major reasons for its rapid growth. Another factor to consider, Bvalani offers, is that “airtime is expensive in Malawi and people are discovering that communicating on the Internet is much cheaper than SMS and phone calls.” Going forward, Chirembo adds that young Malawians will drive social media use. There are “a large group of the youth who are so eager to try out all the social media platforms,” he says.

Overall, Chirembo believes Malawi Fuel Watch is showing Malawians that despite some juvenile aspects of the Facebook platform, “one individual or a group of people can use it for something of social good.” He concludes, “I see a bright future for social media [in Malawi] as long as censorship does not creep in.”

Fuel scarcity fuels corruption in Malawi

Amidst severe fuel scarcities, frustrated drivers queue at a gas station after being tipped off that a tanker is set to arrive to offload petrol. Photo by Elena Sosa Lerín.

It’s a Thursday afternoon and the thermometer is about to hit 40 degrees.

Taxi driver Mike Msindira, 32, is sweaty, exasperated, but resigned to the idea of losing time and his daily income of $75 CAD – instead of driving passengers around, he must spend his time driving all over Blantyre looking for fuel.

He has now been at this gas station for nearly nine hours, has been without fuel for four days, and his tank is still at zero; but he won’t leave because his car is one of the first vehicles in the queue and he’s heard from different sources that this particular gas station will be receiving gasoline and diesel before the end of the day.

Msindira, along with thousands of other Malawians, is experiencing the fourth fuel crisis of the year.

Each crisis has been the result of the government’s inability to import gasoline or diesel due to its inability to acquire forex.

Fuel scarcity in the country has disrupted businesses, affected public services, and even regular activities, such as going to work or driving children to school.

But those who don’t own a car are also hurting.

Due to fuel scarcity, by the end of November, minibus operators announced a significant increase in their bus fares, from an average of 50 cents to around 70 cents per journey. Considering that most Malawians live on less than two dollars a day, many have chosen to walk to and from their workplaces and homes, as they cannot afford to pay the new rates.

But the one thing that the absence of fuel has been fuelling is corruption.

For instance, Msindira says that it’s becoming an unfair but common practice to pay “tips” to gas station attendants to get advanced notice of the day and time the station is set to receive petrol.

If you don’t tip them, Msindira says, you don’t get serviced at all.

The Malawi Energy Regulating Authority (MERA) has stated that it will revoke the licenses of operators who engage in corruption. It also says that it will work with the police and the Anti-Corruption Bureau(ACB) to arrest those attendants who ask for tips. However, to date, nothing has been mentioned as to how these measures will be implemented.

These crises have seen the emergence of a steady black market for the illegal sale of fuel with prices ranging from $5 CAD to $6 CAD per litre.

Adding insult to injury, unscrupulous traders are mixing fuel with other substances, such as paraffin or water, which can potentially harm car engines.

Blessings Nkhambure, 27, an electrical engineer, has waited for 48 hours to get gasoline.

“I’m stinky!” he says, showing the large and dark sweat stains under his armpits.

He hasn’t showered for two days. His meals have consisted of bananas or bread, which he passes down with Fanta. To avoid falling asleep at the gas station at night, he chats with the people around him, or listens to music from his cell phone.

“The government should assist us urgently,” Nkhambure says. “We can’t run our business, we can’t eat, we can’t do anything without fuel.”

In an attempt to pacify the public, the government announced in late October that the Reserve Bank of Malawi had made over $3 million USD available to Petroleum Importers Limited (PIL) to allow the purchase of 15 million litres of fuel.

But this only provided Malawians with 20 days worth of petrol, and fuel scarcity reared its ugly head once more.

Even Energy Minister, Goodall Gondwe, admitted in early November that this effort wasn’t enough, explaining that in fact, $30 million USD is needed to solve the issue.

Each crisis results in a significant economic toll for Malawi.

The CEO of the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI), Chancellor Kaferapanjira, estimates the fuel shortages are costing the economy up to $10 million US a day.

Meanwhile, customers waiting at the gas stations try to remain patient.

But just as nobody seems to know when the fuel shortages will end, it isn’t clear how long consumers’ patience will last either.

“Imagine you’ve got a patient in an ambulance that has no fuel and this patient has to make it to the hospital. If not, the patient dies,” says Msindira. “In this case, the patient is the whole nation.”