Now that the fuel crisis has resurfaced in Malawi and threatens to be with us for the foreseeable future, 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 that there is a semblance of order when filling stations 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 June 10 201, Â two enterprising Malawians, Kondwanie Chirembo and Fred Bvalani started a Facebook group called Malawi Fuel Watch. Their idea was that it was a big inconvenience for motorists to keep moving from one filling station to another looking for fuel, in the process burning up the precious little left in the tank. The Facebook group was meant as a forum where motorists would inform each other on which filling stations had fuel.
Over the 18 months that the group has existed, it has attracted a membership base of over 10 000, which increases each day. It fulfils 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.
At the height of the last crisis, Puma sent out daily updates to an e-mail list. It was usually forwarded multiple times. You needed to know a Puma filling station owner to get the e-mail address of the person responsible for compiling and sending out the update.
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 â€œMera 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.â€ 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 (jerry cans). There is no one in control. I have always wondered why filling stations do not 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 motorists 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 were on a queue helped one gauge oneâ€™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 organise themselves and choose representatives to help relay crucial information and maintain public order. It is time everyone took responsibility for preventing a looming disaster at the fuel pumps.– The author blogs at AfrikaAphukira and for Global Voices Online.