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Malawi Faces Nationwide Fuel Shortage

FILE - Motorists queue for fuel at a pump station in Malawi, in this 2022 file photo. Hours-long lines are hitting the country again in July 2023 as a fuel shortage strikes nationwide.

Fuel stations in Malawi's economic capital, Blantyre, are running on empty after a fresh, nationwide fuel shortage this week.

Long lines of motorists are waiting for hours, sometimes overnight, in hopes of fueling their vehicles, while public transport fares have doubled. Malawi's energy regulator says the country has depleted its fuel reserves, largely due to a lack of foreign currency.

The problem became apparent July 16 when motorists started to scramble for gasoline, though diesel still was readily available.

Now, both products have run out. Long lines, some as long as a kilometer from a pump station, are common, attracting a lot of speculation from motorists such as Labani Chirwa.

Chirwa has heard there are plans to hike the prices of fuel, leaving many thinking some filling stations are deliberately hoarding the fuel to make huge profits from the old stock.

The government has rejected that speculation.

This is the first time since March the fuel supply situation has reached critical levels.

The fuel scarcity has pushed operators of public transportation vehicles to almost double their fares.

However, the operators say despite the increase in fares they are not making any profits because they are spending a day or two lining up for fuel without doing any business.

The fuel scarcity is a big blow because many people and their families rely on minibuses, said Calisto Kambani, who runs a minibus business in Blantyre.

Malawi has been facing recurring fuel shortages since August 2022, largely because the country lacks enough foreign currency. The Reserve Bank of Malawi said in June that the government's foreign exchange reserves were not enough to last a month.

Henry Kachaje, chief executive officer for the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority, told reporters Tuesday that Malawi cannot keep up with rising international prices for petroleum products.

"Previously, the country used to require an average of about $300 million worth of product, but when the prices of petroleum products on the market rose, as a country we needed almost $600 million worth of a product. Unfortunately, our export base did not double as the import bill doubled," he said.

Kachaje said the energy regulator is working with fuel suppliers to minimize the shortages.

"One way is to engage suppliers that are willing to give product to Malawi in Malawi Kwacha [local currency]," he said, "so we use that as a measure to supply to the main market on a daily basis while we allow our national importer, the National Oil Company of Malawi, to focus on restocking the strategic reserves."

Kachaje said if all works according to plan, the fuel strategic reserve in Malawi will be restocked by the end of August.

The current fuel shortage is temporary, he added, projecting it will be resolved within three days.