Sustainable Transport in Eswatini: A potential industry-leading country or an unlikely dream?

Sitting in a haze of smoke behind a barely roadworthy bus, truck or kombi is a daily occurrence in the Kingdom of eSwatini. Unfortunately, the Kingdom seems to be a microcosm in this regard for many countries considered to be in the ‘Global South.’ 

However, does it really have to be this way? With the likes of Switzerland and Singapore as well as Tesla and Jaguar leading the way in sustainable transport and with eSwatini’s goal of First World Status by 2022, I wondered if sustainable transport is a close reality or just a pipe dream. So, could eSwatini soon be leading the developing world to fame and glory in this up-and-coming industry?

Well, there are promising signs…

To date, eSwatini has committed to both the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the more recent incarnate of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In line with this, His Majesty King Mswati III  has said that “In ensuring environmental sustainability, programs to this target are in place in order to support the needs of the present and future generations.” This has provided us, as a country, with a much-needed call to action, but we now need to collectively work on the action plan and steps to achieve such goals.

Furthermore, eSwatini has signed and ratified several international environmental agreements, most recently and perhaps most importantly being the legally-binding Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This historical agreement states, besides countless other points, that limiting global warming involves creating an environment in which electric and hybrid-electric vehicles will be viable to use. So what does this mean on the ground in eSwatini? It turns out, not much at all. See, while purchasing a hybrid or even electric vehicle may seem as though you are doing ‘your bit’ for the environment, such is not gospel in the Global South. This is due to our current reliance on power sources from coal power stations in neighbouring South Africa. This provides the majority of eSwatini’s electricity, meaning the electricity used to charge electric vehicles is still contributing to the problem and thus renders the point of such vehicles redundant. 

All hope is not lost though. eSwatini, with its relative water security, fertile soils and favorable weather has been, and continues to be, a promising hub for the production of alternative fuels, such as biofuel. In 2005, D1 Oils Swaziland, invested £8 million in a project near Croyden in eSwatini in hopes of cultivating ten thousand hectares of Jatropha, a fuel plant, over a five to ten year period to supply thirteen million litres of refined Jatropha oil for blending. Unfortunately, the crop did not live up to expectations and was competing with food production, thus the project was abandoned.

Currently, bagasse, the fibre remaining after the extraction of the juice from sugar cane, therefore not competing with food production, is used to produce electricity in eSwatini. The Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC), also produces over forty-two million litres of ethanol annually that is used in alcoholic beverages, pharmaceuticals and water treatment. They also produce just over 3.6 million litres of fuel grade ethanol per year. However, this joint venture between the Government of eSwatini and RSSC is currently still in the research stage and due to strict regulations against the use of the blended fuel for the public, the fuel is only used in certain government and RSSC vehicles such as the one opposite.

While this may be done for research purposes, more probable suggestions have been made that the strict regulations on bio-fuel have been set to protect the revenue created from fuel imports, a sad yet pertinent issue.

So there is potential?

Well, I’d like to say so. However, we as a country have many obstacles to get through before our transport industry can be deemed sustainable in any way. The first and foremost issue being the type of vehicles on our roads. The introduction of second-hand import vehicles, predominantly from Japan, in the early 2000s significantly increased the number of vehicles on the road as these alternatives to locally (South African) manufactured vehicles are much more affordable. An independent study done last year indicated approximately half of the vehicles in the Kingdom were second-hand imports. Besides the increase in vehicles on the road, the average age of the cars in the Kingdom became higher due to the majority of these imports being over ten years old at the time of import. This significant increase in ‘old’ cars simply means that the average car in eSwatini uses more fuel and emits more greenhouse gases compared to the newer, more efficient and cleaner-burning cars in say South Africa, where the import of these second-hand vehicles is simply not allowed.

Furthermore, in eSwatini, personal vehicles only undergo a roadworthy test when the ownership of the vehicle is transferred, not when the annual license is renewed such as in many developed countries. The UK, for example, requires vehicles over three years old to obtain a certificate of roadworthiness from an approved test centre to renew its annual license, ensuring that these vehicles are not polluting more than they should be. A simple yet effective step that eSwatini can take, perhaps being subsidized through one of the many available climate financing mechanisms, making it mandatory but free. 

The last problem, and by no means the smallest, is our public transport sector. While still being a more eco-friendly option than individuals driving cars, the industry is nowhere near as efficient as it could be. The overwhelming majority of vehicles employed in the public transport sector are small, old ‘kombis’. Having established the issues of having mostly ‘old’ vehicles on the roads, you may be wondering, “What’s the problem with them being small?” Well, it means that many more engines must be run to transport the same number of people than would be the case if large busses or, even better, trains were used for inter-city travel as seen in many developed countries. 

So, what’s the verdict?

Having looked at the road transport industry due to it completely dominating in the Kingdom, we can safely conclude that; while eSwatini’s promising national and international goals, signed climate agreements and research into biofuels indicate that the transport industry in eSwatini may be, or may soon be, considered environmentally sustainable, the regulations of imported vehicles, roadworthy tests and legislation against the use of biofuels as well as current public transport system and sources of electricity suggests that eSwatini is still leaps-and-bounds behind many countries. Therefore, until the legalities and laws involved in the road transport industry and our nation’s sources of electricity are at least reviewed, I sadly have to conclude that the road transport industry is not on any path to “environmentally sustainability”. However, the potential is out there – we simply need to harness it.

Written by Bobbie Pennington — student, environmental advocate and deep down, a huge car enthusiast.