Biodiesel production: What next for Zim?
A TECHNICAL analysis of the current situation will point to the lack of feedstock as the main problem stalling biodiesel production in Zimbabwe.
Granted, other multiple underlying factors contribute to the unavailability of the so required feedstocks.
Instead of discarding the project all together, the Government and all stakeholders involved ought to glean lessons from the experience and address the challenges that ensued from its first inception. The 10 percent biodiesel blending is attainable provided critical issues that need immediate atten-tion have been addressed.
The ZIMRA third-quarter report of 2019 highlights that diesel imports slightly increased from 265,46 million litres in the same period in 2018 to 267,26 million litres in the third quarter of 2019, while petrol imports slumped by 18,24 percent from 130,49 million litres to 106,66 million litres. This shows the importance of diesel in the nation as the diesel engine is used in many vital sectors of our economy such as agriculture (tractors, com-bine harvesters, irrigation engines), mining (mills, earth-movers, sluicing plants) and transport. Moreover, due to insufficient power generation diesel powers generators that are used to provide household power needs.
This problem has somewhat become historical and in the 1980s the Government spearheaded a policy on liquid biofuel research, nonetheless, the ar-rangement did not yield significant results. In the hype of biodiesel production from jatropha (Jatropha curcas) that swept across sub-Saharan Africa in the early 2000s our hopes as a nation were rekindled and we hastily joined the bandwagon in the period 2004-2007.
Alas, the project failed dismally and was a great disappointment to many.
Zimbabwe, as a nation is desperate for solutions to the fuel crisis it faces.
We do have the facilities and infrastructure to produce the required 100 million litres of biodiesel annually.
However, the biodiesel plant at Mount Hampden and other smaller ones dotted around the country have become white elephants and are incapaci-tated due to the lack of feedstocks to produce the fuel.
Therefore, finding ways of solving this problem will translate to the successful production of biodiesel in Zimbabwe. Like any other crop produced in Zimbabwe, the main challenge is yield, this rendered the jatropha enterprise unprofitable and the programme was abandoned in frustration. Increasing the yields per hectare will ensure a consistent supply of feedstock.
Some lessons from the biodiesel national programme will prove key to solving this challenge.
It cannot be overemphasised that an agricultural entity under the Ministry of Agriculture, for instance, Agricultural Research and Extension (AREX) should have been at the helm of the jatropha outgrowing scheme.
The appointment of the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe (NOCZIM) to oversee contracting of the out-growers was not a prudent decision since the appointee is not an agricultural organisation.
NOCZIM disbursed propagation material (seeds and cuttings) to the farmers but did not make the necessary follow-ups to assess how the farmers were fairing. This owes to the fact that they could not offer the technical assistance since they are not an agricultural entity. AREX, for instance, should be responsible for the technicalities in handling the outgrowing scheme. The efficacy of this modus operandi is seen in the Chisumbanje project where the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (ARDA) is one of the principal partners.
If the outgrowing or contract farming approach is to be adopted, then a leaf has to be taken from the tobacco production model. In this model the Government is not the contractor, rather private contractors provide inputs to the out-growers who in turn sell the crop to their benefactors. Research and experience have proven that the outgrowing/contractual production model thrives in a decentralised setup. Conversely in a scenario whereby the Government is to be the main protagonist, then state plantations on which jatropha or other feedstock crops are produced should be established. A critical stage was skipped in rolling out the biodiesel programme. Conceptualisation of the project was executed and even the political momentum needed to sustain the programme was gathered, albeit pilot research projects were not carried out.
People were possessed by the biofuel frenzy that was spreading across the continent and rushed to implement the project without proper planning or conducting research trials.
Implementation should have been undertaken based on the results and recommendations from the trials
There is need to go back to the drawing board and come up with solutions to the maladies that came along with hasty implementation of the pro-gramme.
Extensive research work has to be carried out on a number of aspects. At the outset, there is a lack of elite planting material selected for quality used for the propagation of jatropha in Zimbabwe.
This has a huge bearing on the overall yields obtained.
Therefore, plant breeding projects have to be conducted so as to develop jatropha cultivars that have superior yield traits such as high oil content and quality. With an average yield of 794kg/ha in Zimbabwe against projected yields of 3t/ha, huge efforts need to be channelled towards boosting yield per unit area. Even the initially allocated 120 000 hectares intended to produce the targeted 360 000t/annum will not be sufficient. This means that we will have to treble or quadruple the apportioned land to meet the target. This will not come without challenges. In a nation where food security is an issue, it would not be prudent to set aside 500 000 hectares of land to produce 100 million litres of biodiesel annually.
It is a fallacy that jatropha thrives commercially without any attention and with the most minimum requirements, that statement in as far as crop production is concerned has not been true.
It has to be understood that there is a world of difference between growing jatropha as a hedge and producing it as a cash crop.
One of the reasons why the biodiesel programme received a lot of hype was the potential for poverty alleviation in rural areas. Some documented yields ranging from 2-12t/ha which attracted public attention are not attainable without handling jatropha as a cash crop.
This means that adequate necessary inputs such as fertilisers, irrigation in areas where precipitation is limited and crop protection products such as insecticides and fungicides have to be availed for the achievement of high yields.
This crop deserves agronomic attention just like any other crop produced for economic purposes. Romanticism in the way ideas and policies are in-troduced hinders effective implementation, just as the entrepreneurship concept is presented across Africa whereby it is made to appear that everyone should be an entrepreneur, well research and statistics show that not everyone can just wake up as an entrepreneur. Granted the discourse is for anoth-er day.
It is of paramount importance to look into other prospective plant species that can be used for biodiesel production such as the Pongamia pinnata.
There has been great success with this species both in India and Australia. Last year I got in touch with Christo Smith who is conducting some agro-nomic and breeding trials on pongamia in South Africa.
When the project becomes a success a few years into the future some people will think that our counterparts further south are just fortunate and ourselves are riddled with evil spells, be that as it may, fortune favours the prepared.
For Zimbabwe to be a competent biodiesel producer, considerable investments have to be committed towards technological innovation in agricul-ture. We need to find ways of minimising production costs while increasing output per unit area. This cannot be done with obsolete technology.
The nations that are generating huge returns due to high yields in the feedstock crops have highly invested in technology revamp hence enhancing production. The disquisition would not be complete if the issue of jatropha pricing is not mentioned. NOCZIM which is responsible for this aspect needs to adopt a participatory approach and negotiate prices with the farmers.
Arbitrary gazetting of prices will only hinder prospects of success as farmers may feel short-changed.
There is need for all the stakeholders to come to the party. Government ministries (Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement; Ministry of Energy and Power Development and Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology), legislators, research organisations, non-Governmental organisations (NGOs), independent researchers and the layman on the streets need to be involved for the programme to be a success.
There is need for transparency and proper coordination among the three principal ministries. Sound policy formulation is a requirement. We ought to take advantage of the existing research findings, for instance, the areas suitable for jatropha cultivation have already been characterised by Jingura and contemporaries.
Fixing all these anomalies will certainly not be a walk in the park but the potential benefits to be reaped justify the price to be paid.
A reactionary approach whereby we shelve away the plans for biodiesel production based on sentiments that the programme was not successful during the first inception is lethal to national development. As a nation, we ought to learn from the previous experience and implement possible solutions. Outright dependence on imported petroleum will not be sustainable in the long run hence it is imperative that we start coming up with local solutions to this challenge. From a technical perspective, there is still hope in the Zimbabwean biodiesel project.
Nyasha Kavhiza is an agronomy PhD scholar at the People’s Friendship University of Russia.