Have refineries ready for bio-diesel now

The new fuel is made from vegetable oil, the sort of thing people cook with or sprinkle on their salad. Any vegetable oil will do, including waste oil from hamburger joints when the chips have been cooked.

The environmental advantages of bio-diesel are obvious. Carbon dioxide is recycled between vehicles and plants, dramatically reducing the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Bio-diesel is also a very clean fuel, meaning that there are no other pollutants emitted into the air.

Modern economies are built around liquid fuels and bio-diesel, coupled with more efficient engines and other factors, allows continued economic development while actually reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Many third world countries without oil fields are already using bio-diesel, or plan to do so, to limit imports of increasingly expensive petroleum and reduce dependence on external suppliers. The environmental factors are also important for this group since they allow development to first world standards without the opprobrium of boosting carbon loading of the atmosphere to intolerable levels.

Farmers in all parts of the world love the fuel, giving them a good market for oil seeds, including oil seeds, like those from jatropha, that are not edible.

In Southern Africa, swathes of India, parts of South and Central America and Australia, jatropha stands out as the feedstock of choice for bio-diesel.

It has been described as a miracle plant, able to flourish in semi-arid land and being a high-yielding perennial tree.

It has been around for a long time, with commercial production centred on producing high-quality industrial oils. But the arrival of bio-diesel has elevated it into a cash cow for tens of thousands of farmers.

The Zimbabwe Government saw its potential about two years ago. With jatropha they had a cash crop that would start producing within three years, would grow where no other cash crop would grow easily, was fairly easy to grow, although needing some care in seedbeds in its first year, but once established could provide a permanent income for even the laziest farmer.

At the same time as the agricultural experts were looking for a cash crop for newly resettled farmers, the economists reckoned Zimbabwe’s foreign currency shortages could be dramatically eased if petroleum imports could be restricted without damaging the economy.

The two groups suddenly found jatropha was the obvious solution to both their problems and within a few months the wheels were in motion to get thousands of small-scale farmers to plant the crop.

What Zimbabwe does now need is the processing plant.

Namibia is now following suit and it is obvious that farmers in northern and eastern Botswana should also be taking a good hard look at the crop. There is not much else to add to livestock rearing in many of these areas, and the first-class infrastructure that Botswana is putting in place will aid jatropha production.

Botswana and Namibia could well investigate a joint processing plant, at least while they are building up feedstock supplies. For what all those so keen on bio-diesel must realise is that their dreams will come to naught unless such plants are built in time to process the first main crop. It is one of those chicken and the egg problems. Farmers cannot market jatropha seed until such a plant is built, but such a plant is useless unless there is feedstock.

Thousands of Zimbabwean farmers have taken their Government’s word at face value and are planting jatropha. In two years time, as the first crop comes onto the market, the industrialists must have their refinery ready.

The same conundrum will face Namibia.

Everyone talks about agro-industries, and the need for smart partnerships between farming and industrial sectors. Jatropha producers and bio-diesel refiners now have to turn that talk into trees in fields and refineries on the ground.

August 2006
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