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Tracking the Supply Chain of Siphoned Petrol in Kampala

Rough and informal estimates show that vehicular traffic in Kampala and indeed all Ugandan roads could have dropped by about half over the last two to three months as fuel prices reached unbearable levels for many. Over the period, the cost of petrol rose from 3,700 to more than 6,500 today at pump stations in and around Kampala, but significantly higher in the more rural areas.
The car exits after delivery
As petrol and diesel prices continue to soar amidst a cost of living crisis, Ugandan traders and motorists are devising backdoor means of fueling their vehicles.

Rough and informal estimates show that vehicular traffic in Kampala and indeed all Ugandan roads could have dropped by about half over the last two to three months as fuel prices reached unbearable levels for many.  Over the period, the cost of petrol rose from 3,700 to more than 6,500 today at pump stations in and around Kampala, but significantly higher in the more rural areas.

A motorist who spends between 25,000 and 30,000 Shillings on fuel a day, currently spends 45,000 to 50,000 on the same distance using the same vehicle. For one who does not care much about issues of morality and is ready to support a black market to thrive, these ‘fuel markets’ come in handy. 

A URN reporter took time to walk through some of the places disguising himself as a motorist who was in dire need of cheaper fuel and uncovered one of the places along the 4th street in Lugogo, which appears like an old garage for TATA and FUSO water tankers. This place will easily pass for a parking lot for the 10-tyre trucks.

In the parking lot are dozens of trucks that look like they have been parked for so long, others appear battered and dirty, while others are clearly in operation by the look at their exterior and interior. As he started his mission, the reporter parked at a distance not knowing how to introduce himself and why he was at a place like that early in the morning, lest he blows his intentions and risk all the possible consequences.

"But from my stand viewpoint, I can clearly watch what is happening at the entrance to the place and generally on the outside of it, since the road is straight and light of traffic, and the premises are located right along the road; 4th Street Industrial Area," he recollects.

Once in a while, a car enters the premises pursued by two or three young men from the entrance. And without any hesitancy, it drives directly to a certain corner, hard to see from the roadside, as the public view is blocked by the stationery water tankers.

While there, A Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, black in colour, with UG….C registration plate exits the place and heads towards Spring Road or Bugolobi. After the black Prado exited our reporter drove past the place, made a U-turn and drove back to the same gate.

After slowing down at the entrance, which perhaps is not common for known suppliers and customers, a burly middle-aged man realizes that the person in the car is not so acclimatised to the place and approaches him to politely inquire about what he wanted.

"Straight away, I tell him in a sort of desperate tone, that I need fuel. “Hah!  Amafuta tewali (there is no fuel),” he responds. I sound like his response has enhanced my despair as if my engine will stop at any time. Meanwhile, I made sure I go there when the fuel gauge is in red, lest he notices that I have fuel and become suspicious."

Reading his despair, he asks how much fuel the driver needed. At this time, "I lower my expectations and tell him I only need fuel worth 40,000 Shillings, which would be just over 6 litres on the open market. He tells me there are only three litres and asks if I will take it. This fuel is sold in bottles and jerry cans.

After the two agreed, the seller leads the motorist to one ‘Martin’ and tells him that he had a customer. Together, they end in a corner that was almost blocked from public view by the water tankers. He insisted that all they had in stock were three litres of fuel. As Martin went behind the truck, he returned with a five-litre bottle, the kind used by fruit juice makers.

“Mzee, amafuta gabuze,” he says, explaining how fuel is getting scarce, and that they were now selling a litre of petrol at 6,000 Shillings, starting a negotiation which resulted in a slight reduction to 5,500 Shillings. Although he could not divulge details about the source of the fuel, he hinted that they were equally facing a shortage.

Our reporter visited the site two days later to chat with the water tanker drivers about the possibility of delivering a water tank to Bujjuuko, along the Kampala-Mityana Road. Although his offer of buying the 100,000-litre tank at 150,000 Shillings was rejected, by that time he had created a sort of a rapport, to ask him about fuel.

“These days there are fewer vehicles delivering fuel. The owners of the vehicles became strict and others no longer receive free fuel,” he explained.  From the conversation, the narrator explained that the fuel is siphoned from mostly vehicles belonging to government departments but that also private individuals and companies.

For most cars, a long tube is used to siphon the fuel out of the inlet of the tank, while for bigger ones, the fuel is drained from under the car.  He further narrates that all actions are undertaken with the consent of the officials, to whom the vehicles are assigned and the cash from the fuel sales is divided between the driver and 'the boss.' The middlemen buy each litre of siphoned fuel at 4,000 Shillings from the car owners.

But the operational structure at the station is not clear. However, a tanker driver at the site explains that 'the boys' who sell the fuel have a supervisor, who reports to an unknown boss, most likely, an employee of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation.

The National Water agency is the ‘owner’ of the facility, which hosts a High-Pressure Pump” from which the tankers also get the water for sale through the ‘Kampala Water Sellers Ltd.”

The Lugogo 4th street fuel marketplace is one of the many around Kampala, especially in the slummy areas, but also in trading centres along highways. Several slums have places that are known mainly by boda-boda riders and residents, selling fuel in bottles or jerry cans and at cheaper prices that on the open market.

A mini survey found petrol selling centres in Busega and Masanafu along the Northern Bypass in Rubaga Division, Luzira and Kitintale in Nakawa Division, in Kamwanyi, Nsambya area in Makindye Division among others.  Other sources say near almost all police barracks; Naguru and Mbuya in Nakawa Division, Wandegeya in Kawempe and Wattindo in Wakiso District along Bombo road, there are selling points for stolen fuel, mainly siphoned from police and army trucks.

The cheapest fuel is perhaps that which is supplied by fuel tankers from Kenya delivering products in Uganda, especially in towns along the transportation routes. In these towns in Busia, Iganga and Njeru, among others, but also in Nakasongola along the Kampala-Gulu Highway and in Masaka along the Kampala-Masaka-Mbarara highway.     

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