Ghanaian Ingenuity

What is going on here? That is a LPG (liquified petroleum gas) tank that has been fitted in the trunk of a taxi in Ghana. I just came across this yesterday in the taxi that took us into the field and back to collect our pre-registration forms. (The forms were great, by the way, and we spent the better part of last night and this morning entering the data into a spreadsheet for our upcoming distribution and randomized hang-up). LPG emits less carbon dioxide than petrol, much less nitrous oxide than diesel, and produces zero particulate emissions. It’s also better for engines because it burns more cleanly than the alternatives. Fill-up works exactly the same as when using petrol and takes about the same amount of time. It’s certainly a viable auto fuel in Ghana, where there are LPG stations in every major town.

Having discovered this alternative fuel source, I’ve been asking every taxi driver I’ve encountered about what they are using and why. I’ve surveyed about a dozen drivers and here’s what I’ve found:

  1. LPG-users like LPG because it is cheaper that petrol. Both LPG and petrol prices are fixed by the government, LPG at 0.50 cedi a litre and petrol at 1.16 cedi.
  2. Petrol-users like petrol because there are LPG shortages often (lasting up to three weeks) which can result in work-days missed and increased price.
  3. Diesel taxis are not that common and seem to be the more conservative choice – efficient, reliable, etc.
  4. Nobody gives a hoot about the environmental impact of their respective fuel.

One taxi driver told me that the recent trend to home-install LPG tanks in taxis occurred when Asian imports starting coming in that were built to be powered on LPG. The drivers saw this, recognized that they could use the same LPG in their cars that was universally available for their cooking stoves, and figured out a home-grown solution. According to one driver I spoke to, the tanks are mostly coming from other countries, though there is one company in Ghana that builds the steel canisters required for safe LPG storage in a car. Apparently, car manufactures sometimes ship LPG cars to countries that do not have enough demand for LPG vehicles. These LPG cars are converted into petrol cars before they are sold and the LPG surplus tanks eventually find their way to places like Ghana.

LPG is much cheaper than petrol in Ghana, about 0.50 cedi versus 1.16 cedi. The prices are fixed by the government. No doubt, this is a main driver for the recent LPG phenomenon. The government, however, doesn’t like that LPG is being used to power cars and often claims that this is the cause of shortages. (Taxi drivers using LPG disagree, naturally.) While I am still a little unsure of how the prices are set, I can see that it would be very difficult for the government to find a politically tolerable price for LPG because it will affect the entire population using cooking gas as well as the taxi drivers. Petrol is a lot easier to set a price for because the poorest of the poor do not have vehicles. It wouldn’t surprise me if the government outlaws LPG-use in vehicles (or just taxis) in the future – perhaps just adding LPG tanks to the list of items that police officers search for at checkpoints. Of course, a dash will take care of any indiscretion.

I haven’t been able to get a good estimate of the proportion of cars, or even just taxis, that are using petrol, LPG, and diesel. One LPG-user told me the majority of taxis use LPG, a petrol-user told me about 10% of taxis use LPG. So it goes in a country with very few reliable statistics. I can say that I personally have seen at least 10 taxis with home-fitted LPG tanks in their trunks.

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