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ENERGY-MALAWI: Rise in Paraffin Prices Leaves Traders in the Dark

Claire Ngozo

LAKE MALAWI, Malawi, Feb 23 2011 (IPS) - Increasing energy prices have caused anxiety for many small-scale Malawian traders, especially those in rural areas and peri-urban areas who rely on paraffin for lighting their business premises.

Fishing on Lake Malawi. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Fishing on Lake Malawi. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Liquid paraffin is the most common fuel used for lighting in Malawi, according to the country’s 2008 population and housing census conducted by the National Statistical Office. Up to 85.7 percent of the 13.1 million people in the country use paraffin for lighting.

Electricity is a luxury for many in Malawi, where the total population that uses electricity for lighting is only seven percent. The United Nations (UN) indicates that up to 60 percent of Malawi’s 13.1 million people live below the poverty line.

On Jan 28 the prices of paraffin, diesel and petrol went up by 6.6 percent, 12.46 percent and 13.19 percent, respectively.

The Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA), a government body that regulates the activities of the energy industry, announced that the new price for a litre of petrol will be 1.90 dollars; and for diesel, 1.71 dollars per litre. People who need paraffin now have to part with 1.01 dollars for a litre of the commodity.

The announcement was not well received. “The increase in the price of paraffin means that I have to spend more money on the fuel to light up my lamps as I work late into the night. I don’t want to suffer losses. I will just have to stop working at night,” Alefa Wadulira, 47, from Chimwala, Mangochi, on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, told IPS.


The lake is nestled on Malawi’s eastern border, adjacent Tanzania and Mozambique.

Wadulira buys fresh fish from fishers who land their catch on the shores of the fresh water lake. She takes the fish home to process and preserve it by smoking and sun drying before moving it to outdoor markets around the district.

Fish is the single most important source of protein in Malawi, where it provides up to 60 percent of the animal protein dietary intake of the nation. It is responsible for over 40 percent of the total protein supply of vulnerable poor households, according to Maldeco Fisheries, the largest commercial fishing and processing company in the country.

The fish industry in Malawi is an important source of employment, rural income and food security. The sector supports the livelihoods of over 1.6 million people in lakeshore communities, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“I run two households from the fish sales; I am a widow with three children. My firstborn son has been staying in Mozambique for the past eight months and left his wife and two children in a house adjacent to where I stay. He is not making much money as he hasn’t found a good job yet and I have to cater for his family as well,” explained Wadulira.

The fishmonger said she pays rent and buys food and clothes for the two households. She pays school fees for her two children and two grandchildren from the fish sales. She estimates her weekly income at 15 dollars.

“But I use up to seven litres of paraffin in a week, which means I will now be spending almost half the income,” worried Wadulira.

She has had to change her routine and has since dropped out of an adult learning course which she had been taking. Wadulira was improving her reading and counting skills; she left school after three years in primary school due to poverty.

“I spend the whole morning scouting for fish and I only come back from the beaches at around three o’clock in the afternoon. I do some household chores before I start working on the fish.

“I usually work up to 11 o’clock at night but now I just have to stop going to school for the moment and make sure that I work on processing the fish before it gets dark so that I don’t spend too much on paraffin,” said Wadulira.

Other fish vendors share her concerns. “The increase in the price of paraffin will negatively affect the fish business. We must work at night and paraffin is such an important commodity,” said another trader, Mussa Chipwete.

They cannot use candles because they work outdoors and candles are easily blown out by the wind. “Glass covers the flames in paraffin lamps. We don’t have an alternative but to use paraffin,” Chipwete told IPS.

The Economic Empowerment Action Group (EEAG), a local non-governmental organisation that fights for economic justice, told the local media the price hike is untimely as it is comes at a time when the country is facing fuel shortages.

Since September 2010 some small enterprises have been unable to move goods to and from markets while others have had to suspend operations due to shortages in paraffin, diesel and petrol.

The shortages have, among other factors, been blamed on a lack of foreign exchange caused by President Bingu wa Mutharika undertaking too many international trips that waste foreign exchange.

Meanwhile, traders who rely on paraffin are bracing themselves for tougher times: MERA indicated in its 2010 report that imports of paraffin had dropped by 22.5 percent from 2008 to 13.9 million litres in 2010.

The Malawian government indicated in an economic report for 2010 that the decline in paraffin imports was due to the general shortage of the commodity on the international market.

 
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