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Biodiesel project hinges on agric sector’

Orirando Manwere

ZIMBABWE’S recently launched biodiesel project will, according to experts, largely depend on a consistent supply of feedstock in the form of cott

on, soya beans and jatropha seed for its success, a requirement which poses a serious challenge to players in the agricultural sector.

While stakeholders have welcomed the initiative, there are mixed feelings on whether farmers who are failing to produce enough food crops due to underutilisation of land and lack of inputs will be able to ensure sufficient supplies for the project.

According to a document issued at the launch last week, the inaugural plant at Heydon Farm in Mount Hampden has the capacity to produce “up to 100 million litres when fully integrated, supported by the availability of sufficient feedstock of oil seeds” per annum.

The document says at full capacity, the economy requires around a billion litres of diesel annually, which can be achieved if the 10 provincial plants, envisaged to be in place by 2010, produce 100 million litres each.

At least 500 tonnes of seed oil would be required annually to produce 100 million litres of biodiesel.

Harare-based economist John Robertson said the biodiesel initiative was a noble idea which could only be successful if the country’s agricultural industry operated at full throttle in order to produce the required feedstock.

“There should be total utilisation of the land to ensure the required feedstock supplies,” said Robertson. “It must be borne in mind that we are currently not able to produce enough food as a nation and we are depending on imports,” Robertson said.

“Part of the feedstock for biodiesel is from food crops like soya beans, sunflower and rape and other non-food crops like cotton and jatropha which is the main crop for the project. So, there is need to strike a balance between food and fuel producing plants and to ensure that plantations are well maintained by providing enough water, fertiliser and other requirements,” he said.

He said given the current state of agriculture, the project would take a lot of time and money to be fully operational.

“It is practical to produce the envisaged quantities of biodiesel. It is not beyond us but it is not going to be easy. There is need for optimum land utilisation,” said Robertson.

“On the other hand, there is need to ensure uninterrupted power supplies for the processing plant and water at farms where oilseed should be produced on a large-scale without depending on rain and that means developing reliable irrigation infrastructure,” he said.

“Although jatropha is draught-resistant, there is need to scale up production of other oilseed crops all year round to ensure sufficient supplies for the intended provincial plants and this is where I feel the challenge lies,” said Robertson.

The chairman of Transload Enterprises, which is involved in the project, an SP Parirehwa, said the project was anchored on the ability of farmers to produce enough feedstock.

“As Zimbabweans, we are fortunate that our country has rich soils and a very conducive climate for growing oilseeds. Our farmers are therefore challenged to grow abundant oilseed to support this plant,” said Parirehwa at the launch.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono also acknowledged the challenge on the farming community to produce adequate feedstock and pledged that the bank would provide farmers with the necessary financial support for the programme, which he said would save the country US$35-80 million per annum in foreign currency.

Fuel costs account for 15-20% of the total production costs across key sectors of the economy.

Estimates from the Ministry of Agricultural Engineering, Mechanisation and Irrigation show that the overall production of various crops and livestock for the 2007-2008 season requires 3 322 222 hectares of land and 119 458 500 litres of diesel.

An agricultural expert within the ministry, who requested not to be named, said there was need for more land and identification of capable farmers to produce oilseed crops for the project.

The expert pointed out the need for government to ensure early provision of inputs like seed and fertiliser.

“If we continue the way we have been running our agriculture over the past five years, this otherwise noble biodiesel project will be a flop,” he said.

“We need productive farmers on the land and full support by government in terms of incentives. Already our preparations for this season have been affected by lack of inputs and this problem should come to an end if this project is to succeed,” he said.

Officials from two leading oil companies also hailed the biodiesel initiative but said its success would depend on the commitment of government and the farmers charged with producing the oilseeds.

“Obviously, that is a positive development and we hope the farmers will be able to meet the demand for oilseed,” said one official.

“At the moment all is not well in our agricultural sector and one hopes that there is going to be better planning and coordination this time around,” he said.

According to statistics in the launch booklet, the production of oilseeds has been in decline since 1994, mainly due to droughts experienced in the southern African region and Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform programme.

While the country produced about 105 000 tonnes of soya beans in 1994, the figure dropped to 55 000 tonnes in 2006.

Sunflower production dropped from 40 000 tonnes in 1994 to 20 000 in 2006.

Groundnut production went down slightly from about 95 000 tonnes to 90 000 while there was an increase from about 105 000 tonnes to 150 000 tonnes in cotton seed production.

Since 2005, government through the Ministry of Energy and Power Development and the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe has stepped up efforts to promote the production of the jatropha curcas plant as an alternative source of biodiesel to minimise fuel shortages in the country.

It established a Jatropha Growers and Biofuels Association aimed at disseminating information, technology and agricultural inputs to farmers. The jatropha project was launched in October 2005 in Mutoko where the plant is common.

The National Oil Company of Zimbabwe was mandated to spearhead the project through an outgrower scheme under which it would enter into contracts with farmers who were willing to put at least five hectares or more under jatropha. However, the production of the crop is still at the experimental stage in Mutoko.

Farmers in the area would rather produce food crops than jatropha as they still have to come to grips with the benefits of the new cash crop. Statistics on the production of the crop are not readily available and it is not clear how much feedstock quantities are available at the Mount Hampden plant.

Officials in the oil industry said with commitment, Zimbabwe could join Germany, Central American countries, Egypt, India and South Africa that were enjoying the benefits of developing biodiesel plants.

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