Jatropha biodiesel project back on track

Debra Matabvu
Conceived 12 years ago when the country was in the throes of biting fuel shortages, the jatropha biodiesel project – which was premised on cutting the country’s fuel import bill – seemingly suffered a stillbirth.

The multi-million dollar jatropha processing plant in Mt Hampden, which was touted as the first of its kind in Africa, became a white elephant. Government’s envisaged plans to transform farmlands into “oil fields” also fell through.

But the project is now on the rebound.

Government, which is aggressively working on cutting the import bill, narrow the trade deficit and actively promote renewable energy, has decided to breathe life into the project. The Ministry of Energy and Power Development, through Finealt Engineering – its biodiesel processing company – has adopted the business.

Most notably, the decision to pursue the project was taken after years of research, developing a profitable business model and fundraising. At the 6000-hectare Nyakadecha Plantation in Mudzi, Mashonaland East, a massive jatropha project is taking shape. Land preparations at the plantation are nearing completion.

Nyakadecha Plantation’s research and development manager Mr Tadious Nyamayevu told The Sunday Mail during a tour of the estate last week that Government never contemplated discontinuing the jatropha biodiesel project.

“Government never stopped the National Biodiesel Programme since its inception in 2006. It only scaled it down and focused on research and development after having realised that there was need to create expertise in the growing of the jatropha feedstock and biodiesel processing,” said Mr Nyamayevu.

“We had to go back to the drawing board since most of the information we had back then was from the Internet. Through years of research, we found that the best varieties that yielded the greatest results emerged from Mudzi, Mutoko and Victoria Falls.

“We have since located Mudzi, Mutoko, Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe and some places in Mashonaland East as some of the places that have some of the ideal climate conditions for growing jatropha. We have also identified that cuttings have yielded better results, compared to seedlings.

“Thus, we also saw it fit to manufacture biodiesel machines that are suitable for the Zimbabwean climate, so that we do not have to import the machines or the spare parts from other countries. During the inception of the programme, we acquired machines from China. However, these are lying idle as we do not have foreign currency to buy the machine parts needed.

“So, to us, lack of funds has been a blessing in disguise because we were able to work on a number of researches that will benefit the project.”

It is believed that over the years, Finealt Engineering has been engaging technical experts drawn from local universities who have been testing different varieties of jatropha plants with a view of establishing those suitable for the country’s various ecological regions. Given enough resources and investments, Mr Nyamayevu said, the project has the potential of creating thousands of jobs and save foreign currency.

“For every five hectares of jatropha, one job is created. Of the 6000 hectares availed, 1 200 jobs are created. Biodiesel can also save the country millions of foreign currency.”

The country currently uses $100 million per month to import fuel. Bioenergy experts say a tonne of seed oil can produce 300 litres of biodiesel.

Finealt Engineering envisages that once production begins, the National Oil Company (NOIC) will be the offtaker.

Presently, Finealt Engineering is producing a litre of biodiesel at US$0,98 but intends to drive the price down to US$0,78 due to improved efficiencies. The retail price for regular diesel is $1,23 to $1,29 per litre.

Mr Nyamayevu said, “Although the production of biodiesel locally does not guarantee lowering of diesel prices, international fuel prices fluctuate depending on supply and demand. We are looking at the broader picture.

“These include security of fuel supply and reduced dependence on imports thereby saving foreign currency. lt will also lead to the creation of employment, rural development and reduction of carbon emissions through increased uptake of biofuels, which are clean sources of energy.

“Thus, the programme is not aimed at reducing prices of diesel only, but has much wider benefits to the country, local communities and will also contribute to climate change mitigation.”

According to Mr Nyamayevu, who is also an engineering expert, the country needs to exploit the limitless opportunities in the renewable energy sector in order to grow the economy and slash imports.

“We have an abundance of resources in the country, they have not been fully utilised. There are areas that are not suitable for agriculture and can be used for solar farming,” he said.

“There is need for Government to look into this area and adequately invest in this sector. It is not something that can be done overnight, but it can be done, and it can save the country so much revenue and provide the much-needed electricity.”

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