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Feeling the Fuel Pinch Across Africa

In Burundi, drivers are so desperate for fuel that they sleep on forecourts of petrol stations. Senegal has so little jet fuel that Air France’s flight from the capital, Dakar, to Paris has been stopping in the Canary Islands to fill up. Johannesburg has the same problem, which has caused United Airlines to cancel some flights from New York. From Kenya, which recently suffered its worst petrol shortage in a decade, to Lagos, where queues outside petrol stations backed onto motorways, and Cameroon, where thousands of lorries have been stranded without diesel, Africa has been short of the lifeblood of modern economies. The shortages are not simply the result of higher prices that have made fuel unaffordable to poorer buyers in many parts of Africa. They have also been caused by several other market changes that particularly affect the continent. One vulnerability is that sub-Saharan countries refine little oil domestically. Many of their refineries are badly run and operate far below capacity or are too small to compete. Refinery output in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by half over the past decade, even as oil demand in the region has risen by 19%, according to the iea. Sub-Saharan Africa now imports about three-quarters of its refined products on average, a greater share than any other region. That leaves it deeply exposed to external shocks. West Africa is especially vulnerable. Senegal, for example, is short on fuel in part because the country’s sole refinery has been shut for maintenance.