Region seeks substitute fuel

Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and DRC also have suitable land, the sort of farmers who would benefit, and economies totally reliant on petroleum imports.

While South Africa pioneered the modern industrial process of making bio-diesel, in the days when the apartheid regime was desperately worried about international oil sanctions, that country plumped for Sasol II instead, thanks to the problem of finding a suitable oilseed for feedstock.

But the more northern and warmer Sadc countries have the option of Jatropha curcas, a Mexican plant that is already grown in much of Zimbabwe, although in past years largely as a fast-growing hedge rather than an oil producer.

This perennial small tree or large shrub can grow anywhere where maize can grow, so long as winters are not too cold, including marginal maize areas, the sort of places where drought wipes out maize crops more often than farmers reap a crop.

Once established the trees are extremely drought tolerant and can cope with poor soils, the sort of conditions that are far too common over much of Southern Africa.

Jatropha trees start bearing, three years after seed is sown, a largish nut that can be crushed to express a good-quality but non-edible oil.

To process the oil into bio-diesel a chemical or industrial process is required. This is not complex, although the name of the process, transesterification, makes it sound so. The main by-product is glycerine, which soap makers want.

Ultra-environmentalists and survivalists have been making their own bio-diesel for years using nothing more complicated than an old kitchen blender, a thermometer, a set of kitchen scales, some plastic bottles and tubes, and two chemicals readily obtainable, one from almost any hardware store.

But to have a continuous flow of tens of thousands of litres a month, a modern industrial plant and different process is needed. The modern industrial technology was developed in South Africa in 1979 and then exported. Most of Europe now has such plants, using rape seed as the feedstock, and most European countries require diesel to be blended with up to 5 percent of bio-diesel. Some American states are following suit, using soya oil as feedstock.

Such plants were opened in the developed world to first mop up surpluses of oil seed. They are now being pushed for environmental reasons. The carbon dioxide produced when diesel engines burn the bio-diesel is resused by the farmers when they grow more oil seed. Depending on the source of energy used on farm and to power the industrial plant there is some continued loading of carbon in the atmosphere, but only a small fraction of what petroleum diesel produces.

Zimbabwe has started a programme to expand jatropha production to 80 000 hectares by 2010, with the equivalent of thousands of hectares planted during the last rainy season. The 80 000ha will be enough to supply 10 percent of that country’s diesel needs and easing a great deal of pressure on limited export earnings. But while the impetus for expanding the crop came from this reason, it was quickly seen as an ideal cash crop for small-scale farmers, both those in the old communal areas and the new farmers recently resettled.

Jatropha at its best can produce just over 1500 litres of diesel a hectare, but using the more marginal land not suitable for sustained growing of food crops does cut yields. To avoid ethical problems of cutting food production farmers are being advised to use this more marginal land, or grow the trees as windbreaks and along roads and field boundaries.

Namibia is also looking for a good cash crop for small-scale growers, especially as its land reform gathers momentum. Extensive animal production on small farms produces little more than poor farmers and as the size of average land holdings in Namibia decline there will be a need to have suitable sources of cash.

So recently Over 80 stakeholders (public private partnership) met in Windhoek to consider a draft final consultancy report on the National Bio-Oil Energy Road Map and determined that jatropha was the most feasible plant for dry-land cultivation for the extraction of bio-oil. The meeting came also to the conclusion that plant can grow approximately in the same areas as maize can grow, but only in the less frost-prone areas, i.e. only in Caprivi, Kavango and the ‘maize triangle’ and that it is suited to small-holder as well as large scale farming.

It was envisaged at the meeting that approximately. 63,000 ha of Jatropha would be planted in Namibia by 2013 (phase 1 towards 2030). This translates to an industry which would contribute an additional N$ 189 million in GDP to the Namibian economy. Based on 2005 prices, this would contribute 0.5% growth in GDP.

The oil is likely to be used in the bio-oil energy sector as blending into commercial diesel, probably up to 5% (as is already law in many developed countries); decentralised on-farm/village-level blending into agricultural diesel; exports to specialised niche markets; running an envisaged 12 small 1 MW decentralised power stations in Namibia (this should attract ‘carbon credits’ under the Clean Development Mechanism for developing countries under the Kyoto Protocol);as substitution for paraffin and for soap making.

The stakeholders decided at the meeting that the four intermediate objectives to achieve the above goals would be to establish and maintain the necessary bilateral and multilateral agreements and arrangements that are required to promote rapid exchange of scientific know-how, germplasm, and technology and to facilitate trade in relevant goods and services, including carbon credits and other environmental goods and services; establish and maintain a policy environment and portfolio of policy instruments that supports the rapid development of a sustainable bio-oil energy industry, especially to manage risks external to the project or the operator; ensure proper and effective management of process, product, and market risks, and ensure achievement of optimum primary production of bio-oil energy raw-materials supplying technology pathways, through appropriate choice of production systems, supported by best and scientific know-how.”

To oversee and drive the above a “National Bio-Oil Energy Committee” (‘NABEC’) comprising of the 6 main Ministries concerned and a wide variety of private sector organisations and actual entrepreneurs, was formed and would be chaired by the Namibian Agronomic Board.

It was further decided that Jatropha curcas and, when necessary other bio-oil energy crops, should be gazetted in terms of the Agronomic Industry Act of 1992. This included the in-principle agreement to payment of levies by the industry (producers and processors) to cover its administration costs, once sizable crops are harvested starting in about 3 years’ time. Appropriate regulations of liquid-fuel standards in terms of the Petroleum Products Act should be gazetted.

August 2006
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