For us who are not experts in "diplomacy," it is hard to understand why the governments of Uganda and Kenya should be embroiled in a fight over fossil fuel trade which, anyway, is in the process of getting condemned, if not by international treaties, then by technology in the marketplace.
So, what if Uganda has the right to import its dirty fuel through Kenya while Kenya has the right to help its middlemen get richer by making the poisonous fuel more expensive for Ugandans? Regardless of who wins the financial fight over the dirt, where does it leave the health of the Ugandans, who have to inhale it and spend more buying it using money they could spend on other things?
For, even if the international fossil fuel trade continues for many more years, it is true that petrol sold in Africa is refined to lower levels than that consumed in, say, the EU, thus affecting the health of both our humans and our engines.
A report released this January from Makerere / Mulago health researchers indicated that a fifth of our deaths are linked to inhalation of polluted air.
Let us remember that kerosene is “kindly” less taxed so the poor can light and cook with it, thus unintentionally sending them to earlier graves. Now, our village health teams, which have mostly been driving immunisation and anti-malaria campaigns, are being trained to additionally fight indoor pollution.
Now, to the alternatives. Rather than, or besides fighting over control of the poison being sold to them by rich international dealers, Uganda and Kenya could put the health of their people, vehicles and wallets first, and jointly develop better ways of powering their transport. And we are not even talking about electrification of transport, which is raging in European, American and Asian markets.
We are talking about growing clean fuel for petrol vehicles, which in coming years will be dumped here as the rich countries ban them starting 2030.
Recent studies, including one published by the Journal of Integrative Agriculture, show that of the three proven crops that can produce clean fuel in East Africa, sugar cane is the most favourable, yielding better than maize or jatropha by using even less water at a possible output of 212 tonnes per hectare a year, to produce 7,849 litres of fuel.
So, if Uganda committed a million hectares of good soil with its plentiful surface and underground water (a few metres below the surface) and Kenya supplied technology, the two states could produce over seven billion litres of fuels a year, employing some one million youth during and after setting up the production and distribution infrastructure.
Sugar cane is particularly interesting in Uganda where, several years ago, many out-growers became desperate when the sugar millers stopped buying their produce, leaving communities like Busoga (population of over three million people) angry with the government.
At the same time, Kenya customs would impound sugar “produced in Uganda” docking at Mombasa from the high seas, suspected to be for dumping in the Kenyan market. So, Ugandans may not be entirely innocent in the sea access quarrels, unless it was purely Kenyans running the sugar dumping racket.
Yet, while we still let the biofuel opportunity lie undeveloped, in Uganda, we have for a century known our village women to distill sugar cane juice to make a potent drink (war gin, locally pronounced as “waragi”) which, before dilution, is potent fuel that burns explosively with a blue flame. Their science can be improved to make different biofuels.
Needless to add, industrial refinement of sugar cane simultaneously produces many watts of electricity, further “energising” the energy transition.
General online research indicates that a petrol vehicle can be converted to biofuel at about $500 — of course varying according to its size/ cylinder capacity.
Pursuing the biofuel line would leave Ugandan and Kenya drivers buying cheaper, cleaner fuels, millions of youth employed in its growth and processing, while pollution would drastically reduce. And the two governments’ energy being wasted in fighting over access to the sea would go to useful pursuits.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]