It is natural for people to strive to find a solution every time they encounter a problem. That is part of life both at household, community and corporate level.
For close to two years now, Malawi has been reeling under a perennial fuel crisis. The problem is due to scarcity of foreign exchange to enable importers, State-owned National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma) and the private sector consortium Petroleum Importers Limited (PIL) pay suppliers.
In the course of the crisis, Ministry of Energy has in recent past led delegations to the Mozambican Indian Ocean ports of Nacala and Beira as well as to Zimbabwe, a land-locked country like Malawi, purportedly to find alternative sources of importing fuel.
During the recent trip to Zimbabwe, we learnt that the delegation comprising Ministry of Energy, Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) and Nocma officials expressed interest to use Feruka pipeline in Zimbabwe via Mozambique to cut the on-road transit distance and haulage costs.
The distance to Feruka is about 600 kilometres (km).
Ministry of Energy Principal Secretary Alfonso Chikuni is on record as having said Malawi was eager to see the deal done to help broaden the importation scope.
Under Mera’s current fuel import mix, about 70 percent of the country’s total fuel imports are expected to come through the Mozambican ports. But in reality, about 82 percent of fuel imports are hauled through Dar es Salaam instead of the prescribed 30 percent with Beira, accounting for 17 percent against a 50 percent provision on paper and Nacala an insignificant one percent instead of 20 percent.
The underutilisation of Mozambican sea ports could be attributed to factors such as the civil war that ended in early 1990s and damage to railway infrastructure connecting Malawi and Beira through Nsanje. Currently, rehabilitation of the 72km Bangula-Marka railway line is underway, but it will be a long way to have it reach Limbe in Blantyre.
Prior to the Zimbabwe sojourn, the Malawi Government delegation also visited Mozambique and “demanded” that suppliers increase fuel imports through Beira.
Well, it is good to seek solutions and find alternatives, but it is also a waste of scarce resources for public officers to be doing the same thing over and over again. If records are anything to go by, none of the proposals being hyped now are new. I recall similar ‘voyages of discovery’ in 2016 to explore use of the Zimbabwe oil pipeline following escalating violence between government troops and armed militias in Mozambique that time. Mera at the time indicated that an assessment was underway on the Zimbabwe route to tap from the pipeline. Thereafter, the issue died until this time around.
For the record, the now perennial fuel scarcities haunting the country are not necessarily due to supply problems or ‘indeed’ the source, whether pipeline, Beira, Nacala or Dar es Salaam. The problems are due to shortage of foreign exchange to pay for the commodities. The forex situation has worsened because Malawi can only generate about $1 billion (about K1.2 trillion) annually from exports against an import bill of $3 billion (about K3.5 trillion).
To resolve the problem, there is need to generate more forex. This can be done by producing and exporting more, something that needs to be encouraged. Without increased and quality production, the market assessment tours will continue but not yield anything. Without forex, even if the fuel is sourced from as close as Tete in Mozambique or Chipata in Zambia, it won’t land in Malawi.
American businessperson and author Anthony J. D’Angelo once said: “Do not reinvent the wheel, just realign it.” At all cost, avoid reinventing the wheel, it will tantamount to a waste of time.