Friday, March 2, 2007

Biofuel in Zambia from Jatrhopha full of promise


Thursday, March 01, 2007
By Joseph Banda

NDOLA - Zambia spends in excess of US$500 million a year on the
importation of crude oil to meet its national demand for fuel needed in
running vehicles and industries.

And with the dilapidated machinery at Indeni Oil Refinery, Zambia has
had to incur even more costs in efforts to ensure that the country has
enough fuel stocks to propel its economic activities.

The Government has for years now struggled to find means of reducing the
costs on fuel and also avoid shortages that arise as a result of
frequent closures of the only oil refinery plant based in Ndola.

First it was the idea of creating oil reserve tanks that has to date not
been a reality before the Government looked at other options.

The focus has from last year shifted to the production of bio-fuels that
have proved to be cost-effective in other parts of the world such as Brazil.

The Government, through Energy and Water Development Minister Felix
Mutati started by courting Zambia Sugar in enticing them into production
of ethanol, which is a critical component of bio-fuel.

And the Mazabuka company has shown commitment and pledged to invest $150
million to expand its sugar cane production in order to produce even
more ethanol as a by-product of sugar production.

Further, Mr Mutati has undertaken several tours of commercial farms
where he has gone to learn how much Jatropha is being grown and to also
find out more knowledge on the plant, which is important to the
production of bio-fuel.

It is envisaged that although bio-fuel cannot completely replace fossil
fuels, it can help the Government reduce costs on crude importation if
significant quantities are produced within the country.

However, the latest minister's tour of Sherrif Estates in Serenje and
Golden Valley Agricultural Research Trust (GART) on the Great North road
in Lusaka reveals that the country needs to be conscious on its path to
embrace bio-fuel as a supplement to fossil fuel.

At Sherrif Estates where a farmer is growing Jatropha and producing
diesel from sunflower and groundnuts that he later uses to run his
vehicles, tractors and other machinery at the farm located 30 kilometres
from Serenje boma, he learnt that the Government has to be careful in
embracing Jatropha.

Owner of the farm, Roger Sherrif, told the minister that he was
currently producing bio-diesel which he used for his fleet of vehicles
and other machinery without adjusting them and that it had proved
cheaper than buying from filling stations.

The farm is currently producing 2,000 litres of diesel a day and, with
the availability of more raw materials, there is capacity to produce
even more fuel.

Mr Sherrif led the minister and his delegation to his fields where he
has grown Jatropha and proved that although the plant was poisonous to
animals, he used his cattle for weeding and they did not eat Jatropha

He agreed that he was ready to partner with the Government in the
production of fuel as long as certain protective measures were put in
place to benefit the farmers, producers and finally consumers.

He said the Government should ensure that tax on bio-fuel was as low as
possible, especially when it was being sold to consumers so that it
could also compete with mineral fuel.

"In Britain, tax on bio-fuel is half that of mineral fuel while no tax
is levied on the same fuel used for agricultural purposes," he said.

The farmer said lack of material and engineering skills were also
prohibitive in the development of bio-fuel while tax on imported ethanol
should also be reduced.

At GART, experts also reminded Mr Mutati that there was need for the
Government to fully understand Jatropha and its effects when grown on a
large scale.

Head of research and development, Douglas Moono, said experts had keenly
followed the excitement on Jatropha and production of bio-fuels, adding
that there was need for adequate research on the plant.

Mr Moono said there was need for caution in the way the Government was
trying to come up with the production of bio-fuels, especially effects
on the environment and the disposal of remains needed to be taken care of.

He said there was also need to regulate the importation of Jatropha
plants until research was done to find out their suitability to the
Zambian situation.

"As Zambia we need to know the effects of Jatropha remains, especially
that on the international level it has been agreed that by 2020, 20 per
cent of mineral fuels should be replaced by bio-fuels," he said.

The danger was to allow any one to grow the plant without any control
measures that would protect animals and the environment.

Bio-energy can succeed in Zambia if energy crops do not impact on food
security but provide opportunities to benefit small-scale farmers who
may be engaged in growing Jatropha.

A large scale bio-energy sector can be built upon organising many
small-scale farmers through outgrower schemes while energy cropping can
be environmentally sustainable.

He added that GART was aiming at reaching out to 120,000 small-scale
farmers in Jatropha growing while encouraging the growing of other crops
such as cassava and other seasonal crops as a way of ensuring food security.

Mr Mutati, who agreed that although the Government was excited with
bio-fuel prospects, said it was wary of many factors and was slowly
coming with a policy that would also cater for a legal framework.

He said there was a lot of anxiety in the country about Jatropha but the
Government first wanted to strengthen partnerships with various
stakeholders so that no stone could be left unturned.

He said all players needed to have enough knowledge on the issue and, as
a result, the Government had this year set aside K600 million for
research on Jatropha and production of bio-fuels.

"As we remain excited, we should also be mindful of how we are going to
dispose off Jatropha residues, protect animals and the environment," he

The minister said that Government had also sent a team of experts to
India so that they could learn how bio-fuels ended up in vehicles and
machinery, especially that Jatropha was a labour-intensive plant.

He added that bio-fuel was supposed to cushion fuel imports and the
Government's goal was to replace mineral fuel initially by 10 per cent
and later 20 per cent.

He, however, said that there were several other challenges such as
ensuring peasant farmers had enough food since Jatropha took three years
to be harvested although the plant could live for over 35 years.

He said the Government would definitely come up with a policy on the dos
and don'ts and also come up with a proper taxation regime to make
bio-fuel as cheap as possible.

He said currently, it cost $1.00 to produce a litre of bio-diesel and,
with low taxes and having a decentralised production and selling system,
the fuel would be affordable to many people.

The Government has also put up an inter-ministerial committee that is
currently discussing possible challenges and effects to the country once
bio-fuels are fully embraced in the next three years.

The land is plenty and water is available for Zambia to grow Jatropha
and, subsequently, produce bio-fuel that could no doubt help the country
save on the importation of crude oil which is ever costing the country
more resources.

However, there is need for caution in the manner the country is trying
to come up with an alternative source of fuel so that there are no
devastating effects to cost the country even more.

Copyright © 2007 The Times of Zambia.


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