By Cheruto Valentine

In a bid to position liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as Kenya’s primary cooking fuel, the government has approved new LPG regulations that will take effect in the coming week.

This move will aid in reducing the health and environment problems caused by cooking with biomass. It will also restore safety to the LPG market by closing down opportunities for illegal refilling, illegal rebranding and counterfeiting of gas cylinders.

“By 2017 and 2018, surveyors were reporting 70 to 80 per cent of Kenyans were still using fuels such as as charcoal and firewood for cooking, heating and lighting,” said Pavel Oimeke, Director General of the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) during a press conference yesterday.

Abdilatif Abdirahman, Petroleum Institute of East Africa (PIEA) Board Member, Mr Olagoke Aluko PIEA Chairman, Mr Pavel Oimeke Director General Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) and Martin Kimani PIEA Board Member.

The consequence is that an estimated 21,650 Kenyans die every year from air pollution. This high figure is in line with the latest Kenyan Economic Survey. The survey reveals that the highest incidences of illness are caused by respiratory diseases yet these diseases are preventable and non-communicable.

Aside from the burden of disease, the environmental costs incurred by use of firewood and charcoal are just as grave.

Currently, the Mau Forests Complex (MFC) is the largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem in Kenya, as well as the largest indigenous montane forest in East Africa, and the most important water catchment in the Kenyan Rift Valley and Western Kenya.

“Yet a forest health survey carried out across the entire MFC in 2016 found high levels of illegal logging of indigenous trees, especially cedar trees. We simply don’t have enough forest cover to sustain such activities without permanently disabling our water supplies and even our agriculture,” said Oimeke.

A shift to LPG is therefore advantageous due to reduction of respiratory illnesses, increase of forest cover and more water supply to the country.

However, over recent years, there has been an emergence of a parallel and unregulated LPG market that made use of these cylinders unsafe. This market cropped up after the LPG Cylinder Exchange Pool was established in 2009 through subsidiary regulations by then Energy minister, Kiraitu Murungi.

The pool made it possible for consumers to exchange cylinders once the gas was exhausted for another one from any brand. This simplified purchase because consumers could buy LPG of any brand at the closest point of sale.

The collecting marketer would then take the cylinder to the concerned marketer and had to pay a fee to the owner of the original cylinder to cover for the container’s deposit fee.

While it was meant to be an advantage, the pool system came with some major drawbacks.

One of the drawbacks was that, despite the creation of an LPG Cylinder Exchange Pool that manages the interchangeability process, the vast majority of branded cylinders were never being returned to their original branded owners. Instead, empty cylinders would move into a parallel market, be illegally refilled and returned back to retailers for sale again.

“Of all the cylinders bought by majority of the licenced LPG marketers, 90 per cent were never returning, staying ‘out there’ through endless rounds of illegal refills and resales. This set up a severe safety problem, as the branded cylinder owners are obliged to check cylinders with every refill and to periodically test their valves and overall safety. With cylinders moving around without ever returning to their brand owners, many were going for years on end without being safety checked, some for over a decade,” said Olagoke Aluko, Chairman of the Petroleum Institute of East Africa (PIEA).

Thus, cylinders were beginning to get damaged without it being spotted or even checked as they were, often, illegally refilled. And there lay the beginning of cylinders leaking, exploding and causing untold harm to people’s homes and lives.

Moreover, the very low proportion of cylinders returned to their brand owners discouraged marketers from investing in buying more cylinders, which began to lead to shortages of safe cylinders.

“There was also a rising problem with court cases where brands were prosecuted or sued for safety failures on cylinders with their brands on them, yet they had not seen that cylinder for many years as it moved around the illegal refilling market,” added Aluko.

As a solution to all these problems, the new regulations now end mandatory interchangeability. Consumers may only return their cylinders to retailers acting for the brand marked on the cylinder.

The brand can voluntarily form mutual partnerships with other brands to interchange its cylinders at the point of sale, following approval by the Competition Authority and submission of this agreement to EPRA.

The mutual exchange will also curb the debt that has risen between cylinder brand owners. Often, one brand owner would end up with an excess of competitors’ empty cylinders. The competitors needed to pay them back the deposits on the excess cylinders. This led to debts amounting to kshs. 1 billion and the collapse of two LPG cylinder brands.

“Now, as LPG cylinders come home to their brand, they will be checked as safe with every refill, and the new regulations affirm that the brand remains the owner of all cylinders, must keep track of every one of them, and is absolutely responsible for the cylinder’s safety at all times,” Aluko said.

“The new rules mean marketers must also put extra safety information on each cylinder, so if you are using a legal and safety checked cylinder it will tell you what to do if you smell gas, written as instructions onto the cylinder itself.”

In addition, brand owners are to ensure that their cylinders are insured. In case of an accident attributed to their cylinder, consumers can now get compensated.

In coming months, EPRA expects to be collecting cylinders that they have not seen for years, and catching them up on safety checks.  The cylinders will then move back into the official and legal market.

The country’s dependency on charcoal and firewood has been a result of the recent disorder in the Kenyan LPG market. This disorder has been detrimental to the nation’s health and forest cover.

“Elsewhere in the world, LPG dominates in rural areas as a clean and safe fuel. Moving to regulations that will see the end of illegal cylinder refilling in Kenya will open the way for a projected seven-fold increase in LPG usage,” said Aluko.