“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who would survive but those who can best manage change”. This quote by Leon Megginson encapsulates a trait of humanity—continuous adaptation. As earthlings, we are guaranteed that changes would always occur. When such changes lead to adversity, life becomes a race for the survival of the best adapter. Nigerians are in an era of change promised by President Buhari. However, this article is not about Buhari. It’s about a flammable liquid called kerosene.
I think a little background information would be helpful here, especially for those who have never seen kerosene. If one grows up around gas cookers or electric cookers, the odds are that no matter how many aircrafts such a person flies in, he/she would not recognize kerosene even if he/she were to be drowning in a pool of kerosene. In Nigeria, apart from airliners, kerosene is mainly used by middle class (still existing?) and low-class families for cooking, and now less commonly, for lighting during dark periods. This means that kerosene is as essential as air, especially in urban areas where firewood is not a sensible option for even the poorest of the poor.
For much of the last ten years, the “official” price of kerosene was ₦50 per litre. However, the reality for most Nigerians was that the quoted price was only valid on the petrol stations’ price board; never at the point of payment. For many residents of “oil broke” Port Harcourt, trying to get kerosene directly from a petrol station is like trying to hack into the US’ most secure networks—possible but rare. So black marketers buy from the stations and resell to consumers. Why this happens is another story entirely. With black marketers in the loop, kerosene sold for around ₦100 – ₦120 per litre. Now, it is going for as much as ₦240 – ₦300 per litre, much more than petrol which goes for about ₦145. This is where “kpo-fire” comes in.
Alongside the militancy issue in the Niger Delta came illegal bunkering and refining of crude oil. “Kpo fire” refers to locally (read: illegal) refined petrol, kerosene and diesel. Although I am not certain of the root of the term, I assume the “fire” part pays homage to the fire used to heat the crude oil for fractional distillation. Kpo-fire has been in existence for many years, but thanks to a slew of accidents, most persons stayed off it and bought the “original” kerosene. With reports of explosions, injuries and deaths from using kpo-fire, it was not given much face by consumers. However, this is now changing.
Why would people risk their lives to patronize an uncertified fuel? The first paragraph has the answer. With original kerosene selling at almost ₦300 per litre, kpo-fire kerosene sells for around ₦140 in urban Port Harcourt, and about half that price in rural communities where the refining takes place. The price difference “in this Buhari time” is enough to obliterate existing reservations about safety since many low-income earners have their minds in survival mode.
Another reason for the increasing acceptance of kpo-fire is the improvement in refining methods. Before now, kpo-fire kerosene could be easily identified by its cloudy colour. However, over the years, the refiners have improved to the point where the products of some local refiners are almost physically indistinguishable from the “original” version. Although, with my engineering background, I am certain that even the best imitation would have chemical differences, especially with respect to additives added by conventional refineries, the average person in the streets does not know this, and frankly, does not care! All they see is a clear liquid similar to the more expensive one. Thanks to these two reasons, more persons are turning to kpo-fire. Some unscrupulous traders even blend kpo-fire with conventional kerosene and sell the blend as conventional kerosene in order to make more greedy bucks.
It can be argued that one of the factors keeping kpo-fire cheap is the low-cost of production. Illegal refiners do not pay for the crude they use, except maybe bribes to some government officials and to “settle” some persons. They also do not pay taxes, and are not bogged down with bureaucratic processes. It’s a “simple” business model—burst a pipe, collect crude oil, refine, sell, repeat. Some may die in the process, some may be shot by security operatives in the creeks, some may be arrested and have their “refineries” shut down, but with the potential profits, kpo-fire is not going away any time soon.
Notwithstanding all the negatives associated with kpo-fire, for a good number of Port Harcourt residents and even in neighbouring states, kpo-fire is a life saver. As the Stoic philosopher, Lucius Seneca said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”. With the receding economy and increasing cost of living, people are bound to take more risks to survive. Maybe it’s time for the government to address the factors making conventional kerosene expensive. Until then, or until gas cylinders gain acceptance among low-income earning Nigerians, it’s kpo-fire to the rescue.
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