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Fake fuel tests UNBS inspectors

By Joan Akello

If you are unlucky, one of these days you might experience what mechanics call a hard start with your vehicle. That means your vehicle will require several failed attempts before it starts. Then it will start smoking or bellowing thick black smoke as you drive, losing acceleration power before eventually cranking to a halt with a dead engine.

A visit to the garage will reveal worn piston rings, huge carbon deposits on the spark plugs, damaged cylinder head gasket, injector pump, and injector nozzle.

Then your mechanic will give you the bad news: You have used adulterated fuel. A motorist like Moses knows what that means.

He narrated his ordeal to this reporter saying, One morning, all my efforts to start the car were futile yet I had driven the car to and from office the previous day.  I suspected that the battery had a fault and took the car to the service station. I told  the mechanic about the problem I had encountered earlier that morning but without even opening the bonnet, he told me that I had refilled adulterated petrol.

According to reports attributed to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), up to 20 percent of fuels on the market are adulterated.

There is insufficient monitoring and consumers awareness, inadequate mechanism and instruments for spot-checking the quality of fuels, says James Mwanje, an engineer who blames UNBS for the adulteration.

But Peter Kitimbo, the head of petroleum laboratory at UNBS says they have failed to completely eradicate the sale of adulterated fuel products in Uganda because the public should know that our technology is an infant doing mature work.

He says the fuel sector in Uganda is too big for UNBS to monitor with its current capacity.

How can we monitor all the fuel dealers? Inspections at the border and spot checks across the country are done but the entry points are ill equipped. We have limited operational capacity.  Kitimbo said.

There are about 87 registered oil companies and possibly thousands of sub-dealers in Uganda currently. Kitimbo says it is difficult keeping an eye on each operator.

Adulteration is mixing one petroleum product with another. Examples may include blending relatively small amount of distillate fuels like diesel or kerosene into automotive petrol, mixing small amounts of spent waste industrial solvent such as used lubricants, which would be costly to dispose of in an environmentally approved manner-into petrol and diesel. Blending kerosene into diesel, often as much as 20-30 percent and mixing small amount of heavier fuel oils into diesel.

Taxing oil products differently is the main cause of fuel adulteration. In Uganda, petrol carries a much higher tax (Shs 530 per litre) than diesel (Shs200 per litre), which in turn is taxed more than kerosene. Adulteration of petrol and diesel is primarily due to the significant price difference between them and the adulterant. Petrol was selling for Shs 2900 per litre last week, diesel Shs 2250, and kerosene Shs 1900.

The lower priced products are mixed with the higher priced and sold at the higher price by dealers targeting higher profits. The problem is blamed mainly on small independent oil product dealers.

Recent scarcity of oil products, especially petrol, and a spike in prices has added to the problem.

It is very easy for one to mix any of the petroleum products. They are all distillates of crude oil but the formula of the fuel is changed for instance benzene and kerosene are almost the same, said John Wakuba, a mechanic at a fuel station.

Sammy Kambugu, director of Sammy Kambugu’s Garage (Ndeeba) says, however, that a mixture of petrol and kerosene wears the edges of piston rings creating a gap which causes smoking. The cylinder head gasket is also affected because as you force the car to move with little power during acceleration.

Since 2007, UNBS has had a laboratory for testing adulterated oil products but the technicians say the work is too much.

As a result UNBS focuses on carrying out surprise checks on samples from pumps. They target retail outlets and have a national routine coverage of 60 percent. Most of this is in the central region which has two mobile teams.

Ivan Kyayonka, the Country Manager of Shell which is the biggest player in the Ugandan market says it has imported a sophisticated laboratory to test samples of its products locally although some samples are sent to their laboratory in Mombasa. He said Shell also keeps a tight watch over their retailers because of these reports.

The recent report that Shell was pulling out of the downstream operation in the oil section have  contributed to the growing fear that adulteration of oil products will increase as small independent players control the market.

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