Tag Archives: Transportation

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

The daily commute – Ghana style

Tro-tros are one of the most common forms of public transportation in Ghana. They are minivans that have been refitted with extra seats.

A regular tro-tro in Kumasi can carry up to 17 passengers, including the driver, the conductor – called mate – and two people squeezed into the front passenger seat.

View from the back of a full tro-tro

My tro-tro ride to work, which takes about 15 minutes in congestion-free traffic, costs 40peswas per trip. That’s equivalent to about 30cents. A taxi ride would cost about 3Ghc, equivalent to about C$2.25.

There are no route maps or fare schedules – at least, not in Kumasi. There are, however, landmarks where passengers can ask to be let off and by which the mate determines the fare. For example, if I were to board the tro-tro and say, “Aseda House,” – as my colleagues had instructed me to do – he would respond with, “40 peswas.”

On my first few trips, hailing a tro-tro felt like  hyper-speed-dating. In my case, I stand on the side of the street and try to make contact with the tro-tro’s mate, who would be shouting out the tro-tro’s destination. If it’s heading for Adum, where I’m staying, I wave it down. If I can’t make out what the mate is calling out, I’d try to mouth my destination as clearly as I can so that the mate or the driver can make out what I am saying and decide whether or not to pick me up.

This whole exchange happens within the few seconds when the tro-tro is heading towards my general direction.

Once on board, I simply wait until the mate is ready to collect my fare. During the entire journey, he would be busy opening and closing the van’s door, jumping in and out of the van and calling out for passengers. Handing him a bunch of coins when he’s not ready to take them is not smart, as I’ve discovered.

There are no designated tro-tro stops either. On my first day taking the tro-tro to work, I simply approached a large group of people waiting by a street corner. The lady I spoke to confirmed that the place we were standing was a regular tro-tro stop.

Even though the whole process seemed chaotic to me at first, I’ve discovered that there is a system at work here. Fares were collected, people were getting to work and children to school. When the tro-tro that my colleague and I were in broke down, everyone automatically and quietly disembarked. Someone grumbled but no one threw up a fuss or demanded a refund. Everyone simply dispersed to look for another tro-tro or a taxi.

Ghana’s tro-tros may not be as smooth-running and organized as what I’m used to back home, but it gets people to and from places all the same, and at a far cheaper price too.