If you were a child in East Africa in the 1970s or before, you might remember the age test you often underwent on the bus to determine if you were eligible to travel free. They would tell you to touch your left ear with your right arm passed over your head. I don’t know how scientific it was but some sharp parents and their children would twist their wrist and fail to reach the ear and the child would be judged too young to pay.
The bus test came to mind last week when the UN environment expert and Africa cleaner mobility programmes focal person at UN Environment told a Southern and Eastern Africa sub-regions meeting on the African Union climate change strategy in Nairobi that motorists in Africa are using four times more fuel than their counterparts on other continents, where they drive modern, fuel-efficient cars.
It is so sad, then, that fellows who managed to beat the cost of commuting by a mere twist of the wrist as children have now spent their adult life paying four times for fuelling their cars! It is not even only four times the cost. For the UN expert talked of four times more fuel and did not consider the fact that “our” fuel in East Africa is already more expensive “their” fuel out there.
So the East African’s driving practices are typical of other poor peoples' practices — being more wasteful than the rich. The UN expert explained that a car out there consumes less than four litres to run 100 kilometres. Well, down here four litres take you 20km in our typical “new” cars of 2,000cc bought at the end of their official life after running some 20 years in other countries.
If then you started driving in the 1980s or early 1990s, you have been on the road for three to four decades. It also follows that you are now retiring or retired from regular employment, and yes, your earnings have dwindled (unless you are a Ugandan judge and will earn the same package every month after retirement until you die).
So you have spent the most productive years of your lifetime burning four times more fuel that you needed to go to work and other things.
In Uganda, a litre of petrol costs Ush4,200 or $1.20. If you are lucky, you drive 12 or fewer kilometres to work and the same distance to go home. You thus burn five litres a day, costing you $6. In 25 days of the month, you thus spend $150 on fuel, which is four times of what you should have spent, even if fuel was cheap — which it isn’t.
The $150 assumption is that you strictly use your car for going to and from work, and you just walk for other social/ family movements. That is not what happens anyway, as family and social matters could clock even more mileage than going to work. Assuming you spend the same on other movements as going to work, then you spent $300 a month on fuel during your active years of driving.
In four decades, which is 480 months, you (will) have spent $144,000 on fuel. But we are told by the expert that you should have spent a quarter of that if you were driving fuel efficient cars, that is $36,000.
In other words, you would have saved $108,000. You can convert that into your national currency and see how much you (will) have burnt in four decades of driving. And now that your earning capacity is declining, don’t you think you could have really done with that $108,000 that you (will) have been burning?
In my (Ugandan) national currency, it is Ush378 million! I could comfortably live off that until I die of old age, but I have uselessly been pumping it away using my right foot!
What would it take to convince young East Africans to adopt more efficient ways of moving around before they find themselves becoming old (wo)men and having uselessly burnt $108,000? Should the older people maliciously keep quiet about it so that the younger ones also graduate into unnecessarily poorer citizens by $108,000 or thereabouts? Fuel expenditure is just one way of wasting money.
Isn’t it about time managing one’s money was made a compulsory subject of learning in our schools?
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]