Muvi woyang'anira . . .
On Saturday November 24th someone posted on Facebook an
urgent message informing people that there was fuel at a certain filling
station in Lilongwe. “Hurry up and fuel your cars” said the message, posted at
8.15am. Twenty messages followed quickly, wanting to know if it was petrol or
diesel. A few people wanted to know how long the queue was. The poster of the
update repeated the message with greater urgency: just come and fill up.
Another person confirmed that it was petrol, and she was just about to fill up
As far as messages go, there was no doubting the veracity of
the information. These people were right there at the filling station, so they
probably knew what they were talking about. The queue stretched for more than
one kilometre, and people waited patiently. An hour went by, but the line
didn’t move. Two hours went by. Soon it was 12 noon. By 4pm it was clear that
there was no petrol at the filling station. People started dispersing. A dozen
or so cars camped right at the pump and vowed not to leave until they filled
|Scenes of fuel chaos from the last crisis.|
In case anyone was still in doubt, the severe fuel crisis
has resurfaced, and threatens to be with us for the foreseeable future. As
incredible as it sounds, it appears those entrusted with ensuring there is
enough fuel in the country have miserably failed their job, yet again. If it
were elsewhere, heads would be rolling. Aside from expressing our anger and
feeling helpless, are there things we, fuel customers, can do?
There is need for the country to learn from the chaos of
previous crises and design better ways of handling the madness at the pumps.
The authorities, including the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA), fuel transporters,
owners of filling stations, the police, and the public, need to sit down and
together map out ways of ensuring two pivotal things. First, that there is accurate
information about fuel deliveries, and second, that there is a semblance of
order when filling stations actually receive fuel.
The first steps were already taken last year when Malawians
started using social media to try and streamline the flow of information about
fuel availability. On 10th June 2011 two enterprising Malawians,
Kondwanie Chirembo and Fred Bvalani started a facebook group which they called
Malawi Fuel Watch. Their idea was that it was a big inconvenience for drivers
to keep driving from filling station to filling station looking for fuel, in
the processing burning up the precious little left in the tank. The facebook
group was meant as a forum where drivers would tip each other on which filling
stations had fuel.
Over the eighteen months that the group has existed, it has
attracted a membership base of over 10,000, which increases each day. It
fulfills a role that should have been the responsibility of MERA, fuel transporters,
and filling station owners. But it is an informal forum, and there is no
guarantee that the information one sees on the forum is accurate. A lot of times
people post accurate information which turns out to be vital. But other times
people post information based on hearsay, rumours or even outright lies.
Some users of the forum get their information from the fuel
companies themselves, such as Puma and Total, and post it on the forum. At the
height of the last crisis PUMA sent out daily updates to an email list. It was
usually forwarded further multiple times. You needed to know a PUMA filling
station owner to get the email address of the person responsible for compiling
and sending out the update. Otherwise, there was no way you would know who to
contact and ask to be included on the mailing list. I was once given a phone
number to call and ask to be included on Total’s mailing list. I texted my
email address to the number, but no one responded.
A few days ago Isaac Cheke Ziba, who happens to be Director
of Information in the Ministry of Information, posted on Malawi Fuel Watch
about how important the forum had become. He saw people holding up phones and
searching for mobile network so as to access the Malawi Fuel Watch facebook
forum. He suggested that “MERA should either run a similar page or indeed we
should ask them to become a member so they can be updating people every now and
then.” He promised to work on it. I hope MERA pays heed.
Observe the pandemonium that arises once word goes around
about which filling station is getting fuel. The pumps are swarmed with cars,
people, and zigubu. There is no one
in control. I have always wondered why filling stations don’t use megaphones to
make crucial announcements about public order. It is by the grace of God that
we survived the last crisis without a filling station catching fire or a major
brawl erupting. There are a few filling stations that know what crowd control looks like, and always do an orderly no matter how frightening the mess. But they are an exception. The majority of filling stations across the country are simply clueless.
Megaphones would assist with letting the multitudes of
drivers know what was going on. In many cases the lines are miles long, people
at the back have no idea what is going on upfront at the pump. This usually leads to
panic, as people take out zigubu from their trunks and
converge at the pumps, adding to the helter-skelter. Others jump the line,
starting unnecessary fights.
During the last crisis, I found it helpful to always ask the
fuel attendants how much fuel had been delivered. Knowing the number of litres
and making a rough estimation of how many cars were on a queue, it helped one gauge
one’s chances of getting fuel or returning home empty. It helped calm the
tempers. It would be a good idea for filling stations to let people know how
much fuel they expect to dispense every time there is a delivery. Another idea
would be for fuel buyers to organize themselves and choose representatives to
help relay crucial information and maintain public order. It’s time everyone
took responsibility for preventing a looming disaster at the fuel pumps.
Suuchedwa kulowa m'maso . . .
Labels: fred bvalani, fuel crisis, kondwani chirembo, Malawi, malawi energy regulatory authority, malawi fuel watch, zigubu