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Political & Social Empowerment

THE TIME IS NOW TO RETHINK OUR BONDAGE TO FOSSIL FUELS

In my sporadic perusing of the Bible and musings, I chanced upon a rather nifty passage of scripture. It was in the Book of Prophet Jeremiah 17: 5 – 8. The Lord says, “Cursed is the one who puts his trust in a fellow mortal and makes flesh his armour, turning away from the word of the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert that will only face hardship. His habitation will only be the scorched earth of the wilderness in an uninhabited saltpan. Blessed is he who puts his trust in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by freshwater, sending out its roots by the brook standing defiant in the face of the sun for its leaves remain green devoid of anxiety in the season of droughts, ceaselessly bearing fruit.” Then there is the Book of Psalms 146: 3 which cautions us against putting our trust in princes, mere mortals in whom there can be no salvation. The Lord would have additionally done well to also put a moratorium on trust in fossil fuels.

As I pen this piece, Kenya is mired in one of the worst fuel shortages for years as a result of our overreliance on imported petroleum to power our economy. The tragedy is that the bottleneck arising is artificial, albeit a manufactured crisis. Apparently, that has been the only thing manufactured in Kenya over the last decade! In the fortnight prior, mile-long queues have been the order of the day snaking around fuel service stations. It has not been entirely surreal to find whole thoroughfares looking like parking lots evoking visions of horror movies in a future where ghost towns are governed by heavy-handed yet benign overlords from whom all petroleum flows forth. To say that Kenyans have been rendered beholden to fuel barons would be an understatement of the century. Needless to say, the entire urban economy dependent upon motorized conveyance has ground to a halt in the ensuing gridlock. Circadian cycles too have been disrupted as nights exist in little dissimilitude to days with people seeking an advantage over their compatriots who will run out of patience, park their jalopies by the roadside and seek alternative means to retire home for the night. In a week replete with artificial crises, Kenyans find themselves queuing to register their mobile phone lines at the risk of getting switched off, queuing for Adam’s ale at water dispensing points in the face of an unrelenting drought only to exacerbate the long queues at the fuel pump. Later in the year, we will form cavalcades to vote for the same clueless or self-serving politicians who put us in this same quandary in the first place. Entrepreneurs indubitably spring up in the face of a crisis and as such, enterprising Kenyans have taken advantage of this loophole in the country’s supply chain system by joining these queues with several 20-litre jerricans which they now sell at double the market rate to stranded motorists. It isn’t bizarre to find Toyota Proboxes parked on the street operating as make-shift fuel service stations retailing super petrol at double the normal price. We treat the election of incompetent leaders normally but now we are set to be treated abnormally by their incompetence. Apparently, this may be the coming to pass of what visiting American diplomat, Amb. Johnnie Carson once presaged of the UhuRuto Presidency, “Choices have Consequences.”

It isn’t bizarre to find Toyota Proboxes parked on the street operating as make-shift fuel service stations retailing super petrol at double the normal price.

The origin of this fiasco has all the hallmarks of leadership failure. The State in 2018 proposed the Finance Bill Amendment that in the spirit of solidarity with the taxpayer sought to lower the Value Added Tax (VAT) more so that levied on fuel from 16% to 8% while making painful clawbacks on other crucial items of expenditure for Kenyans in a bid to save 50 billion that financial year in austerity measures. Unfortunately, the VAT rate for many other important items for ordinary Kenyans was to rise from 14% to 16%. In such a move Super Petrol was to have a price drop to Sh. 118 from nearly Sh. 130. Diesel was to drop from Sh. 115 to Sh. 107. Kerosene used by the hoi-polloi for cooking and lighting would decrease its price from Sh. 97 to Sh. 90. However, in the eyes of the Head of State who was looking for means to finance national expenditure, this most certainly fell short of the acceptable threshold as it pandered to the whims of the status quo while sacrificing the greater national vision. It was good political optics but bad leadership. The country had a foreign debt obligation to honour as defaulting on commercial loans often comes at a heavy price (compounded interest rate) and subsequent donor fatigue. The apparatchiks at treasury had dug the nation into a fiscal hole that we would have to climb out of one way or another.  The next year, the 16% rate was restituted sparking public umbrage added to litigation at the High Court. The Court gave the Senate the prerogative to either uphold or quash the new VAT rate that would adversely affect the pockets of Kenyans. The economics behind a fuel price increase is in the proportionate increment in transportation cost of both raw materials and finished goods, hike in the cost of power hence more expensive manufactured goods, a disincentive for Foreign Direct Investment as the Kenyan business climate becomes cost-disadvantaged. This when compounded with multiple & exorbitant taxation, scatterbrained policy direction, the prohibitive cost of labour and a scarcity of the pertinent technical skills set for some sectors, then it would by a wide margin adversely affect many sectors of the economy. There is an adage that Politics is too important to be merely left to politicians. This axiom proved poignant when the Senate was induced to uphold the injurious taxation rates in closing of ranks across the board among politicians allied to both the government and her newly-found ally, the official opposition NASA Coalition.

Matters appeared to be getting rosy again until the Russia – Ukraine conflict reared its ugly head into affairs in February 2022. Russia invaded Ukraine leading to monumental sanctions on the former from the European Union economic bloc. Imperative to note, Russia is the 3rd Largest Producer of Crude Petroleum in the global marketplace. This doubtlessly resulted in an upsurge in international prices as supply constricted. The government sought to cushion the proletariat from a deleterious price hike by introducing a subsidy paid to Oil Marketing Companies. This was on the agreement that Oil marketing corporations would keep their margins at naught all the while getting covered by the government-backed fuel subsidy. In a move that is difficult to comprehend, the President during the March review, partially withdrew that subsidy. Books of accounts could no longer balance as vexed Fuel Suppliers in turn furnished the government thumped upon the government’s nose, a bill of Sh. 13 billion without which it would become ‘business unusual.’ Furthermore, in a bid to profiteer from the crisis, oil marketers began hoarding their supplies leading to the current pain at the pump witnessed in the last few weeks. An additional quandary is that our regional neighbours do not have any of the subsidy programs which may inform the apportionment of more fuel for export to the detriment of that reserved for the local market. This has seen Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and even the Democratic Republic of Congo eat our lunch as we wallow in a seemingly interminable supply crunch. Uncertainty as the state plays Russian roulette with the stabilizing subsidy is forcing wholesale fuel marketers to hesitate in buying the pricey fuel from the international market with an escalation in the smaller outlets unable to plug the attendant supply shortfall for their loyal customers. It started as a problem in the hinterlands but is gradually making a beeline for our very own capital city and its suburbs. To protect their bottom-line, the majority-share fuel suppliers have been apprehensive of increasing their supply, a fear that draws from the fact that fuel not used to compute the monthly adjustment may not be compensated to their pecuniary disadvantage. Consequent to the arm-twisting, the President was in a huff last week as he assented to a payout of Sh. 34 billion to the franchised Fuel Dispensing Conglomerates. On the sidelines of this charade, the Kenya Pipeline Corporation has issued absurd statements about their reservoirs of fuel almost bursting with ‘product’ but that may only be music for the birds. It is left to conjecture how much product will be dispensed to the local market and how much will ultimately be carted to our neighbours in East Africa. In the April review, we’re in for an unprecedented rise in fuel prices as the already oppressive price points are set to rise even further. An increase of Sh.10 on the current prices is an absolute atrocity. The fallout from all these shenanigans has been the unconditional deportation of Rubis Energy Kenya Chief Executive Officer, Jean-Christian Bergeron in a crackdown against oil firms ostensibly hoarding fuel and by extension engaging in economic sabotage. Scapegoating at its finest.

(Courtesy of NTV)

As per the title of this piece, the time is now ripe to rethink petroleum as we can no longer allow our economies to be held hostage by oil barons. It is an open secret that many nations in the Arabian Gulf used to be barren wastelands only frequented by itinerant merchants until the day when crude oil was discovered within their individual national barriers. That is when their individual national units began their paths to super wealth. Nations like Saudi Arabia; this year’s Soccer World Cup hosts, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates hosting Dubai have no resources to speak of apart from mineral oil. That has not stopped them from lording it upon other countries of the world knowing that any untoward voice counter to theirs will result in zilch oil barrels coming your way. We now even have needlessly haughty, arrogant and even garrulous nations that see no need for outdated norms like democracy, human rights and gender parity, keeping their patriarchy as they know the power they possess. No wonder, it was biblically averred by the son of man to be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven!

One way in which the current crisis can be addressed is to rejig and reorient our transportation systems to dispense with the need for fossil fuel-powered engines. Disruption is no doubt an arduous and even perilous task, nevertheless, there must come a time when a group of nations stand up to be counted for a particular ideal and unflinchingly move forward with it. Historians contend that the South-East Asian Tiger Nations like Malaysia and Singapore used to be at the same level as Kenya around the time when she gained her independence and right to self-determination from Britain. The change only came when both went on an aggressive campaign of industrialization leveraged upon visionary leadership. I dare posture that Kenya can equally dissociate herself from the surly bonds of her petroleum overlords by joining the sustainability brigade and going fully electrical with her motor vehicles. The least said about the Kenyan petroleum reserves underground in Turkana, the better. An alternative to the antiquated fossil fuel-powered engine would be much welcome or in the best-case scenario, a hybrid of both. It has recently come within the purview of this particular writer that there are even motor vehicles run on Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), previously associated with the kitchen. What do we have to lose anyway? In a related story further afield, a giant passenger jetliner, Airbus A380 Superjumbo jet completed a flight from Paris, France to Montreal, Canada primarily on recycled cooking oil much to the exhilaration of environmental sustainability junkies.

Giant passenger jetliner, Airbus A380 Superjumbo jet completed a flight from Paris, France to Montreal, Canada primarily on recycled cooking oil much to the exhilaration of environmental sustainability junkies.(Courtesy of e-radio.us)

In his inaugural address to the American Public in the throes of the Great Depression, newly sworn-in 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt postured, “the only thing we need to fear is fear itself.” Fear of change should be consigned to the rear-view mirror. It may now be cliché to most that one of the few constants in life is change. Concerning an innovative disruption of the current modus operandi, only Fuel Cartels have cause for jitters over the popular adoption of Electric Vehicles. The benefits of electrical conveyance to the much-touted ‘Wanjiku’ far outweigh the drawbacks. They will manifest as reduced fueling & maintenance costs adjunct to abated environmental pollution that has been a quintessential feature of the mineral oil-based engine systems. Kenya would be a perfect destination for not just investors who seek to open factories for manufacturing Electric vehicular units or even hybrid ones. There is also an opportunity in the conversion of fuel-based engines to electrical-drive systems.

NOPEA Taxi (Courtesy of NopeaRide.com and Kenya County Development)
(Courtesy of Electric Bee)

Technically, electric drive trains are less complicated than petrol or diesel-based engines and therefore are much less likely to break down than some second-hand internal combustion engine contraption of conveyance. Nordic countries like Norway are ahead of the curve and have had their time trying out this vehicle type so concerns of low temperature affecting driving are unfounded. These vehicles are run by rechargeable batteries which could be charged using a home charger in 5 – 8 hours. They are run by an automated Integrated Circuit (IC) system and Motherboard that caters for multi-target optimization, better efficiency, heightened power density. This is also coupled to a multiprocessor that runs software that is tooled with Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning for continuous improvement of vehicular efficiency. Electric motors are used to generate the torque (turning force) geared to run the propulsion mechanisms. A fully-charged unit could cover as much as 120 – 180 kilometres which to most intents and purposes is sufficient for daily errands within small towns or even a city. Marquee companies like Tesla (brainchild of eccentric billionaire Elon Musk) and Mercedes today have units that can cover between 250 to 600 Miles (400 – 960 Km) in one charge. Opibus Systems has already pioneered electrical vehicles in Kenya in conjunction with Innovation hubs like GEARBOX and BRCS, for good measure even running the NOPEA Taxi service in Nairobi which are fully electrical-powered vehicles. Recently, even a bus company BASIGO unfurled trips around the city and in my considered, that’s the way to go.

BasiGo Buses Making their presence felt in the Nairobi CBD

This post may seem like a pitch for Electric Vehicles, which it is as from whom are we hiding? As we live in the most interesting era of existence that is the 4th Industrial Revolution – The Information Age, we can no longer be held to ransom by antiquated systems merely to maintain some archaic social order for the benefit of a select few, well-heeled individuals. Among the merits of Electrically-powered units over the current Petrol- or Diesel-powered vehicles include:

  1. Environmental sustainability – We have only one earth that needs to be protected and cherished. The emission of harmful greenhouse gases is injurious to the prospects of life existing on earth which is resulting in the globe baking like an oven, melting polar ice caps and by association raising sea levels that will deny us land for living and growing our food. This meshes well with many items of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set for our planet.
  2. Cumulatively, Electricity is less costly compared to Gasoline – It should be noted that a flagship program of the Jubilee Government was aggressively investing in electrical generation, even going as far as co-opting costly thermal plants under Independent Power Producers (IPP) some of which we have leases as long as 25 years. Rural electrification initiatives ensured that Electrical power, especially in industrial quantities was not an issue. Today, we have mud-walled structures connected to the National grid. In fact, the only critique is that industrialization did not catch up sufficiently to cater to that enormously massive supply. Installation of charging units that use either single-phase or 3-phase power is a fickle challenge to our Engineering ingenuity. I do not need to blow the trumpet for Opibus Systems but they are here for that. Additional investment will be needed in training and building the capacity of manpower in this particular regard.
  3. Lower Maintenance needs – Unless in the rare cases where the motor vehicle blows out its motherboard or Integrated Circuit (IC) you will not need to be having weekly service at your mechanic, at enormous personal cost to you. The system is self-regulating regarding temperature with sensors to signal any dangerous rises in heat levels.
  4. Quiet Operation – This decreases the level of noise pollution. Motor vehicle owners have no doubt experienced the need to idle the current internal combustion engine and carburetor units as you orchestrate the noisiest inconvenience upon your neighbours.
  5. Convenient operation – On depletion of battery, recharging can be done at home. Depending on the type of vehicle and distance you want to cover, charging times can vary between 30 minutes to a full charge of 6 hours on a charging bay that you could get Opibus systems to construct for you in your garage. Better still, property developers and landlords will have them constructed in the car parks of their multi-dweller units.
  1. Job Creation – The conversion of the current internal combustion engine-powered vehicles to either hybrids or fully electrical varieties is an opportunity we cannot allow to pass us by. We doubtlessly need factories and industries to create decent employment opportunities for our well-educated, skillful yet jobless youth. This may just be when the penny drops for us. Even in the United States of America, a formerly rustic outpost like Detroit in Michigan grew its wings when it opened up manufacturing plants for FORD, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler. We need to incorporate these industries into our Technical Industrial Parks and Special Economic Zones to see a tangible shift in our economic outlook.  

Among the demerits include:

  1. New Technology – Electric vehicles are now taking traction worldwide. With all new systems, it takes time to not only get used to it but also put in place systems, structures, legal and legislative frameworks to deal with the same. There are no doubt few to no charging stations in many places but this is a deficit that can be redressed in no time.
  1. Steep Initial Cost – I will be making no fibs about this. Electric Vehicles are currently expensive to purchase as the system is still new in the market. The lowest cost from my shopping around is nearly 3 million Kenya shillings. However, this is the price we have to pay to end our bondage to petroleum until at such a time when there is saturation and market forces as a result of new carmakers and suppliers start cropping up. Then prices will decrease, commensurately.
  1. Limited Driving Range – The range covered by the vehicle will be determined by road conditions and the power-saving capability of your battery unit or bank.
  2. Disruption of Global Economic Systems – Since the advent of the era of innovation and continuous improvements in the internal combustion motor vehicle engine fronted by the likes of Gottlieb Daimler, Nicolaus Otto, Étienne Lenoir, George Brayton, Samuel Brown, Karl Benz and Rudolf Karl Diesel among others, the motor vehicle industry has eternally been in flux. The revolution in many aspects of motoring had plateaued and so going electrical could be the next frontier. That indubitably comes at great risk as many economic systems, national heritage and indeed personal fortunes are built upon the substratum that is liquid gold. Changing the well-worn social structure will lead to treading on a few very powerful toes who may not take it kindly. However, there must come a time when the will of the majority supersedes the whims of the monied elites. Viva the innovator!
  3. Inadvertent Total Battery Discharge – Few things are more gut-wrenching than the prospect of having your motor vehicle crunch to a halt, stalling in the middle of nowhere. In antipathy to fuel that can be carried in a jerrican from a nearby service station, you cannot carry electricity in any portable form. However, a work around may be to keep a spare battery in reserve or have a battery bank so that the entire system is not depleted concurrently.

Apart from going electrical with our vehicles, we could also consider the use of the age-old bicycles. This may not be an attractive prospect especially to the suave and urbane city dweller, those advanced in age or hamstrung by physical infirmity but for those who can, you are welcome to use this conveyance mechanism. In the last few weeks, I have come across videos of a young man on Adams Arcade, Nairobi who imports and repairs electro-mechanical versions of the bicycle. This particular model has the combination of the quotidian pedal & chain coupled with a Motor & Battery system. The bicycle could be powered when going uphill or on difficult terrain all the while its operation gradually charges the battery as you go on your way.

The sage once pontificated, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The necessity generated by a crunch in our fuel supply system must most certainly wrack the brain that will generate the next disruption in transportation technology to end all disruptions. The only constant in life is change and those who are not keen to adapt risk being swept away by the rapid disruptions of modern life. The only thing to fear is fear itself.

By dennismukoya

I am a consummate thinker of new solutions which I passionately endeavour to implement.

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