ACCRA – Low-quality petrol and diesel are a major problem for air quality in West Africa. They contain toxic substances such as sulfur and the carcinogenic benzene. When they break down, cars emit even more toxic exhaust fumes over densely populated cities.

Moreover, these so-called 'dirty fuels' also contains too much manganese, which damages engine parts, particulate filters and catalytic converters.

While the EU has tightened sulfur standards in recent decades, the requirements in Africa were much less stringent for many years. Major oil traders such as Trafigura and Vitol turned this into a revenue model. They mix various components from chemicals and refining processes in Europe into cheap fuels of ‘African Quality’, with much more sulfur, benzene and manganese than is permitted in Europe.

The Netherlands and Belgium form an important hub in that trade. In recent years, the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp supplied more than half of all the gasoline that West African countries imported from the Netherlands and Belgium. In an attempt to improve air quality in West African countries, the Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) introduced a new, far-reaching policy rule. Since April, companies have not been allowed to export fuels with too much sulfur, benzene or manganese.

But does that work? Investigative collective Spit, the Belgian journalistic platform Apache and The Continent in Ghana followed the trail of dirty fuels. We saw that petrol exports to West Africa from the Netherlands largely dried up in the past six months. But Antwerp took over a large part of that trade. If Belgium introduces the same rules, the export of unhealthy fuels will continue as normal from other EU countries or ports outside Europe, market experts expect. They argue for a European directive, but that does not seem to be happening for the time being.

Photo credit: Delali Adogla Bessa

Team members

Bram Logger

Bram Logger is a freelance investigative journalist and co-founder of Investigative Collective Spit.

Marian Ansah

Marian Ansah is a freelance journalist based in Ghana.

Steven Vanden Bussche

Steven Vanden Bussche (1979) is an investigative journalist at Apache.

Steven Vanden Bussche


Apache is a Belgian platform for investigative journalism, in-depth reporting, and analysis. 


Independent, transparent and effective. Spit is a Dutch cooperative of experienced freelance investigative journalists.

Onderzoekscollectief Spit

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