“Dirty Diesel” – How Swiss Traders Flood Africa with Toxic Fuels

Swiss commodity trading companies like Trafigura are systematically exploiting the weak standards in African countries: They are flooding local markets with dirty fuels they would never be allowed to market in Europe – with disastrous consequences for human health.

Air pollution in Africa: a ticking time bomb

Africa’s large cities are growing rapidly. The continent’s urban population is expected to triple by 2050. More people means more cars. And more cars mean more exhaust, more air pollution, and more disease.

Air pollution in African cities is already a serious public health issue. Air quality in Dakar or Lagos is worse than in Beijing, China; the city that regularly makes headlines because of its smog. According to a current WHO-study, the air in the Nigerian city of Onitsha is more polluted than that of any other city in the world. Car emissions are one of the main sources of harmful particulate matter in the air, causing asthma and bronchitis, heart disease and cancer.

Particulate air pollution (in selected Asian, African and European cities):

Even though significantly more cars circulate in Paris or London than in Dakar or Lagos, the air quality in these African cities is much worse. How come?
The Reason why cars pollute the air in Africa so much more than elsewhere is the dirty fuel they burn. One of the main sources of particulate matter in the exhaust generated by gasoline or diesel is sulphur. Sulphur also destroys catalytic converters and particle filters that reduce emissions in modern vehicles. For this very reason, the sulphur content of fuel is strictly limited to a low level in Europe and North America. With obvious success: toxic emissions have dropped dramatically.

The situation in many African countries is a very different one: There, sulphur limits are still several hundred-fold higher than in Europe. Our research shows that the sulphur content of fuels sold in African countries is up to 378 times higher than the European limit.


Unless something is done, an estimated 31,000 people will die prematurely and countless others will be chronically ill from traffic-related air pollution in Africa in 2030. That equals three times the number of deaths from traffic-related air pollution in Europe, the US and Japan combined. In 2050, more stringent standards for gasoline and diesel could save an estimated 100,000 people from premature death. It’s time to take action!

This will lead to traffic-related mortality that is triple the rate of Europe, the US and Japan combined.

African governments must lower sulphur limits to the European level. However, the responsibility is not theirs alone: the companies involved in the business of dirty fuel – or „African quality fuel“ as the industry has come to call it – profit handsomely at the expense of African people’s health!

Research conducted by Public Eye has brought to light a previously little known business model. Our report „Dirty Diesel“ reveals for the first time how commodity trading companies systematically exploit the lax African standards to optimize their profit margins with toxic fuels – to the detriment of the health of people in Africa. The report also shows that many of the main culprits are domiciled in a country that loves to market its cleanliness and especially its clean air: Switzerland. Swiss commodity trading companies dominate the dirty business with „African quality” fuels for West Africa.

Find out how this illegitimate business model works.

Swiss traders and «African Quality»

The conquest of the fuel pump

Surely you must know BP, Shell, or Total. But are you familiar with Vitol or Trafigura ? The fact is, these Swiss commodity trading companies have become major players in their field. In 2015, Vitol generated a turnover of 168 billion dollars and operates a significantly larger fleet of oil tankers than BP or Shell. In 2013, Trafigura was the largest foreign business operating in Africa, the company’s most important market after Europe. Over the course of the last five years, these two companies have bought up entire networks of petrol stations in numerous African countries. The reason hardly anyone knows this is due to the fact that these companies are exceedingly discreet in the way they do business. They do not market their fuel under their own name.

The gas stations in which Vitol is a partner bear the well known Shell logo, while Trafigura operates under the name of Puma Energy. Only the smallest among the three Geneva-based traders, the Addax&Oryx Group, actually puts its name on the fuel pumps: „Oryx Energies“.

Petrol stations in Africa operated by Swiss traders

Testing what comes out of the pump

Just how dirty is the gasoline and diesel sold by these Swiss companies at African petrol stations? There’s only one way to find out: analyzing the fuel that comes out of these pumps. And that’s what we did. We took diesel and gasoline samples from 25 petrol stations in eight countries and had them tested by an internationally renowned laboratory.

The results are shocking: whether in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Mali, or Senegal, the sulphur content of diesel was invariably hundreds of times higher than the European limit. The most toxic sample, from an Oryx petrol station in Mali, had a sulphur content that was 378 times higher than the European limit of 10 ppm (parts per million). Not one drop of the fuel we analyzed could be sold in Europe.

Sulphur content of analyzed diesel samples (in parts per million / ppm)
The most toxic sample showed a sulphur content 378 times higher than the European norm of 10 ppm.

Sulphur is not the only toxic substance in African fuel. We found other harmful substances in concentrations banned in Europe such as benzene or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Because fuel standards in these African countries are so lax, Swiss companies are operating within the law. Nonetheless, their business model is illegitimate because it blithely ignores the health of people living in these countries. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights companies must respect human rights and thus the right to health regardless of the rules that apply in the respective countries.

Supplying dirty fuel from clean Europe

That Africa should be flooded with toxic fuel is even more absurd given that West Africa produces top quality crude oil with very low sulphur content. However, because most West African countries do not have their own refineries or because their capacities are insufficient to process their premium crude, most of it is exported to Europe or elsewhere. Meanwhile these same countries import toxic fuels from Europe, in fact mostly from a very specific region around Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp, known as ARA-region.

The more toxic the cargo, the more likely it is that the tanker is headed for Africa

From the ports of these cities, fuel is shipped all over the world. The more toxic the cargo, the more likely it is that the tanker is headed for Africa. 80 percent of diesel destined for Africa has a sulphur content that is at least a hundred times higher than what is permitted in Europe. If it contains „African Quality“, Europe most likely had a hand in it.

Our research shows that Swiss commodity trading companies dominate maritime trade between the ARA-region and West Africa: they accounted for 61 percent of the 133 cargoes that we could clearly identify on this route in 2014.

Diesel exports from the ARA-region by sulphur content and destination

Blending: Poison for Africa – made in Switzerland

The Swiss commodity trading companies have invested heavily in the ARA-region, buying fuel depots and refineries. No longer satisfied with their role as mere traders who deliver and market these dirty fuels, the Swiss companies now even produce their own! They exploit lax African regulatory standards to blend low quality toxic fuels for these markets.

This is how it works:

Diesel and gasoline do not flow out of refineries as finished products; they consist of various blendstocks. Traders buy intermediate products of varying quality and mix them into fuels. This is called blending. Blending usually happens on land but it can be done on board of tankers at sea as well. Traders can blend products to precise specifications, depending on the desired quality and the regulatory standards of the country of destination. The result of all this: relatively clean fuel for Europe, dirty fuel for Africa.

Blending of “African Quality” fuels

Blending intermediate products in fuel production is normal and legitimate. The business model transcends legitimacy when traders become poisoners and produce „African quality“ by using low quality, toxic blendstocks to produce fuel. Occasionally, blendstocks from the chemical or recycling industries are mixed in as well. To maximize their profits, these companies produce diesel and gasoline in Europe which could never be sold there. It doesn’t have to be this way: the toxic blendstocks could and should be desulphurized and processed into clean fuel.

It’s urgent – and the solution is well known

Fuels with excessive sulphur content must be banned everywhere and banned now. African governments must quickly introduce strict sulphur standards for gasoline and diesel. This simple measure alone would cut vehicle emissions in half. If, moreover, the many old and highly polluting cars on Africa’s roads were to be replaced with vehicles equipped with catalytic converters and particle filters, emissions could drop by as much as 99 percent. But this only works with low sulphur fuels that do not destroy these technologies.

In 2015, five East African countries drastically lowered their sulphur limits. Additional costs were passed on to international trading companies.

Desulphurizing fuels is by no means unaffordable: lowering the sulphur content from 1,000 ppm to 10 ppm – the European limit – the cost of a full, 50 liter tank of diesel would rise by only 84 cents, that is if the entire increase were to be borne by the end consumers, which does not have to be the case. Five East African countries drastically lowered their sulphur limits in 2015. All of the extra cost in this case was passed on to the international trading companies. The savings on the other hand would far exceed the costs: the World Bank estimates that merely lowering the sulphur content of diesel to 50 ppm would save Sub-Saharan Africa 7 billion dollars in health costs over ten years.

The business model of the commodity trading companies that exploit these weak standards in order to maximize their profits at the expense of the health of millions of Africans is illegitimate.
Civil society organizations from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, and the Ivory Coast have taken up the fight for strong fuel standards. They are joining us in calling on Swiss companies to stop flooding their countries with poisonous fuel and to start producing gasoline and diesel with the lowest possible content of sulphur and other toxic substances – for Africa as for the rest of the world. They could start doing this today. They know how it works. They do it every day for the well protected markets of Europe.

© Photography: Fabian Biasio, 2016
© Photography: Carl De Keyzer, Magnum, 2016

End the dirty fuel business now.