Watching an arrow heading straight for your eye: Managing fuel chaos in Malawi

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 her car.

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 kilometrr, 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 up.

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 customers, can do?

Join the queue: Unending fuel crisis takes toll on lives

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, 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 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.

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 at the pump. This usually leads to panic, as people take out zigubu 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 are on a queue it helps one gauge one’s chances of getting fuel or returning home empty. It also helps filling stations determine whether to ration the fuel or not, and by how much so as to allow as many vehicles as possible to get some fuel.

This helps 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, and estimate how many vehicles. 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.

*The author blogs at Afrika Aphukira and for Global Voices Online.

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