OBBO: No matooke republic, just creative fuel sellers

Tuesday September 24 2019

A fuel pump. Uganda was also among the first countries in the region to throw open its fuel market, dismantling state control of pump prices in the late 1980s. FILE PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Uganda has always been a first mover when it comes to economic liberalisation and free market reforms, not just in East Africa, but Africa.

It is also true, that it has then tended to become the laggard as others catch up, and it has a very bad habit on rushing back into the cave, when the reforms become politically inconvenient.

One of the most absurd is the attempt to register coffee farmers, which potentially could require them to get a permit to plant the crop—in what until now has been the freest market coffee market on the continent.

Uganda was also among the first countries in the region to throw open its fuel market, dismantling state control of pump prices in the late 1980s.

With the oil majors moving away from fuel retail, and local independent companies getting licences to sell fuel, Uganda easily has outdone most on this score.

While all sorts of companies, beyond the likes of Shell, Total, Exxon, Engen, Caltex, and BP, are pop-ping up in many parts of Africa, the rate at which they sprouting in Uganda is dizzying. Some places probably have more fuel stations than boreholes.


Still, it is good to see. Though several African countries produce gas and oil, the new generation of retailers makes one realise that hardly anything African appeared in the name of a fuel company.

That has changed.

Among others, in the northeastern Uganda town of Soroti, there are a couple of “Akello Oils” fuel stations. Several are downright hilarious, and in Mbale, in the east, the owner either ran out of imagination, or was dreaming of Uganda’s oil that, it seems, might never leave the ground. He/she simply named it “Oil Wells.”

And, more remarkably, no rival stations have the same fuel price. This is no Matooke Republic; it is the country of some very dramatic fuel sellers.

But, our people, will always be our people. There are reports of the new retailers “juicing” the fuel they sell, mixing it with all sorts of fluids.

One of the outcomes of this is rather unexpected. There are now more Shell and Total petrol stations in Kenya and Uganda, than 10 years ago when some of the global oil majors started drawing down from retail in Africa.

Pump demand for fuel is up, with growing populations, urbanisation, and car ownership.

However, because of distrust of some of the local retailers, these new fuel consumers seem to have been driven into the arms of the Shells and Totals of this world, presumably because their product is not adulterated, since the cost to them would be higher. I went to a quiet Ugandan Lake Victoria-side town, and in a lonely spot somewhere, a Total station was being built.

There is also a new intriguing player in the fuel market. Boda bodas are everywhere in Africa these days, and they ply remote routes upcountry that rarely saw cars, and don’t have fuel stations. And so was born the roadside village fuel entrepreneur, who sells fuel in half-litre, a litre, and two-litre bottles to boda boda operators.

It also means that if you run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, it’s no longer the end of the road. The hut on a hill in the distance, probably has a few bottles of fuel at a premium.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3