By Tendai Chara
The outbreak of the corona virus, or COVID-19 – has delayed the anticipated revival of the jatropha energy project in Zimbabwe.
In 2017, the Zimbabwe government announced that it had rekindled the jatropha project, which had been in comatose for many years.
The jatropha plant, whose seeds are used to make biodiesel, was popularised about a decade ago when the country was facing biting fuel shortages.
Jatropha was seen as a panacea to the country’s perennial fuel shortages.
In pursuit of finding a permanent solution to the fuel shortages, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and South Korean investors opened a multi-million-dollar biodiesel project in Mt Hampden, in Mashonaland West Province.
The project, whose aim was to mainly process oils extracted from jatropha seeds, was the first of its kind in Africa.
Biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels – biofuel – which is easy to transport and possesses high energy density. It is commonly used to power vehicles.
The most common biofuel is ethanol which is made from the fermentation of biomass high in carbohydrates. The current largest source of ethanol in Zimbabwe is sugarcane. Biodiesel can be used to power vehicles or as a fuel additive to reduce emissions. Bio-fuels are clean sources of energy.
Due to a number of reasons, among them financial constraints and recently the outbreak of the COVID-19, the project has seemingly suffered a stillbirth.
Under this project, the government had planned to transform vast farmlands across the country into jatropha plantations.
Apart from introducing biodiesel processing as part of broader interventions to lessen the country’s over-dependence on fuel imports, the project was also aimed at saving foreign currency, create employment, and mitigate against climate change.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in further delays of the project as government is now redirecting is efforts and financial resources towards combating the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Fortune Chasi, Zimbbawe’s Minister of Energy and Power Development, said his government has not abandoned the National Biodiesel Programme.
“After the first phase of research and development, we are now looking into commercialisation of the initiative. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, government is currently focusing on fighting the outbreak,” Minister Chasi said.
The energy and power development ministry had established a biodiesel processing company, Finealt Engineering. The ministry also spent years researching and developing a profitable business model.
Work was also started at the 100- hectare Nyakadecha plantation in Mutoko, in Mashonaland East Province, with a biodiesel plant being commissioned in 2009.
From Mutoko, the programme was set to be rolled to other provinces that have the ideal climatic conditions for growing jatropha.
Government was moving away from research and development to commercialisation.
For the Mutoko project, the feedstock that was used to produce biodiesel was being purchased from out-grower famers in surrounding areas.
Local researchers, working in partnership with universities, tested different jatropha varieties as they ascertained varieties that were suitable to the country’s geographical regions. The tests also sought to establish varieties that gave the best yield per hectare.
Bio-energy experts say one tonne of seed oil can produce up to 300 litres of bio-diesel.
It was estimated that it could cost up to US$650,000 to establish a 250-hectare estate for feedstock production.
In 2017, media reports indicated that Finealt Engineering was producing one litre of biodiesel at US$0,98 and it was projected that processing improvements could result in production costs going down to US$0,78.
Although energy experts maintain that local production of biodiesel does not translate into a fall in the price of diesel, mass production significantly increases fuel supply. Biodiesel production also reduces the country’s dependence on fuel imports, creates employment and contributes towards rural development.
According to energy experts, the increased uptake of bio-diesels also reduces carbon emissions and contributes to climate change mitigation.