Tag Archives: fuel

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 hunting in Malawi

“There is fuel in Monkey Bay!” a text message reads. A game of telephone quickly transpires. “Get there quick! No queues! Will be out soon!”

Filling up in Malawi has become increasingly difficult and expensive.

This week’s five-day drought is said to be the worse since the fuel crisis in 2009, forcing drivers to queue sometimes for days.

Due to a shortage of foreign exchange in Malawi, the country can only afford to import half the needed fuel per month, according to a report by Petroleum Importers Limited (PIL), a company mandated to import petrol in Malawi.

After driving to Lake Malawi from Blantyre with a group of friends the fuel light is flashing. We hurry to Monkey Bay’s filling station. When we get there the attendant tells us the fuel has already run out.

“But the police officer just told us there was fuel still here,” insists my Malawian friend. An argument ensues and we are forced to leave­ the pump.

Down the street a man waves us down and he saunters up to the window. “You want fuel? I can get you fuel,” he whispers.

“We only buy fuel from the station,” my friend protests.

Fake fuel has been flooding the black market, which has now become a major industry in Malawi. Men carrying jerry cans full of fuel around town can sell gas for $6 per litre. More then three times the government recommended pump price of $2.30 per litre. In Canada fuel is selling for $1.20 a litre.

Fuel and forex shortages have caused prices in Malawi to skyrocket. Maize prices, the country’s staple food, rose by 22 per cent in September and a further 15 per cent in October, according to a cost-of-living survey by a local NGO called the Centre for Social Concern (CFSC). Price increases have caused desperate situations for the majority of the population, who live on less then a dollar a day.

The man trying to procure fuel for us continues on, “I can get it from the station. They aren’t out. They won’t sell to you because they are holding on to extra fuel to sell it for more later.”

We follow him.  Soon the Toyota SUV is quietly parked behind a tree with its headlights off.

The plan is that another car is going to fill up at the pump and then exchange the gas with our car. We watch from a distance in order to ensure it’s real fuel coming from the pump. I feel like I’m apart of a drug deal- no longer simply filling up at the fuel pump.

The man, who is a tour guide of the Lake, reports back. He tells us the attendant refuses to fill up the car worried it will cause a huge commotion and vehicles will line up demanding fuel. We ask to speak to the owners.

A few minutes later we are sitting behind the gas station at a local bar having a few beers with the owners.  Small talk is exchange before the real reason we are sitting in the bar is brought up.  “My friend I need fuel. Can you help us? We can pay extra,” asks my friend.

The brothers, who own the station, also happen to be fishermen.  The owners tell us they keep extra fuel for their fishing boats and will sell us some.

After three hours of searching for gas and tough negotiations the deal is secure. Tomorrow at 4 in the morning we can fill up for selling price.  The next morning, an employee fills up the car’s tank in complete darkness in order to avoid spreading rumors that there is gas in the village.

Finally, our fuel hunt has come to an end. With half a tank we can get back to Blantyre to start the hunt all over again.

Cars line up for fuel in Blantyre

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